Wasting (Almost) Everyone's Time Teaching Lots of Math

This week our blog is featuring guest author Wes Beach. Wes is a writer, speaker, and the director of an unusual high school that supports kids who want and need something other than entrapment in a conventional high school.  Follow him on FB and @BeachHighSchool, and find Beach High School at http://beachhigh.education/ .

A number of claims are made about the value of everyone learning algebra, geometry and more, but I don’t think any of them stand up to scrutiny.

Before I get argumentative, I want to say very clearly and with conviction that math is a powerful tool and a beautiful subject for many people. Some people have a passion for math, and I respect and admire this. Other people need to complete math courses to reach their goals; this is, of course, sensible. It’s just that math isn’t for everyone; lots of it are not needed in most people’s day-to-day lives.

I often hear, In today’s technical world, success at work requires knowing math. I once asked a telephone repair person who was fixing the phone in my office if he had enjoyed high school. Yes, he did, he said. Did you take algebra and geometry? I asked. Yes, I did, he said. Do you use it in your work? No, I don’t, he said.

I asked a former student who is now a nurse if she thought the high school math she learned was necessary in her work. Yes, she said. How long would it have taken you to learn just what you actually use? I asked. A few hours, she replied.

I suspect that most of my readers can’t remember the last time in their adult lives that they factored a trinomial or wrote down anything that involved imaginary numbers.

It is necessary to know math to appreciate many aspects of our world. I drive over the Golden Gate Bridge on occasion and appreciate and marvel at it every time. I can do this without having been trained as an engineer. When I get to my destination I can enjoy a glass of wine even though I don’t know a lot about winemaking. I can call home on my cell phone, but I can’t explain its inner workings in any detail. Yes, math was fundamental in developing many of the devices, products, and structures we use and appreciate, but it isn’t necessary for most people to know that math.

Learning math means learning logical thinking. I’m pretty sure many people who have passing or even high grades for high school (or college) math classes on their transcripts went through the motions and didn’t understand the material in any deep way. I once had this conversation with a high school student who was close to graduation and had already been accepted at the college of his choice: Wes, he said, there will be math classes required at college. Do you think I’ll have to understand it, or will I be able to just keep doing it?

Those who assert that math does teach logical thinking assume that a math-savvy person transfers his skills in thinking to other areas of his life. In spite of looking for it, I haven’t been able to find any convincing evidence that this is true. If the aim is to teach critical thinking, why start with math and depend on later transfer? Why not infuse high school classes in many subjects with lessons in critical thinking about problems of immediate and real concern?

Logical thinking isn’t the only way to process thoughts. Madeline, one of my former students, made this clear to me. She said that she thinks in big-picture ways, and she easily grasps ideas like the ones expressed in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. This big-picture way of seeing the world is both a strength and a weakness. Madeline quickly grasps large ideas, but she has trouble paying attention to details. She told me, “Math . . . is a subject that I am not extremely strong in, because it is so literal and exact.”

I am a literal, linear, exacting thinker. This mode of thought also has its weaknesses as well as strengths. I learned math easily (and have forgotten a great deal of it), but a lot of poetry is beyond me because it can’t be taken literally.

Math is required for college admission. This is often true, unfortunately. But one BHS graduate gained admission to Columbia after no time in high school and a year of classes as a nonmatriculated student at UC Berkeley, where he just took just one course in math, a refresher class in algebra and trigonometry. I often wonder what there was in his head to refresh.

Arguments, in some ways parallel and in other ways different, can be made with regard to other traditional subjects, but here I can’t dissect the entire traditional high school curriculum. Suffice it to say that I see no reason why a fixed set of subjects, chosen by people distant in time and place, should be useful for every single person of high school age. Many of my graduates were when I met them, or have become, professional dancers, athletes, photographers, musicians, actors, and so on through a wide range of vocations. One of the reasons they became my students was that they couldn’t focus on their interests and talents in a conventional high school.

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