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Math is a #firstworldproblem June 1, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, math, teaching.
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I was recently having a conversation with a friend about teaching when she launched into a complaint about students not understanding logarithms. The conversation became somewhat off putting because this friend fell into the trap of equating mathematical knowledge with intelligence. A lot of people do it: English majors will imply one is an idiot if one doesn’t appreciate the succinct stoicism supplied by Hemingway, for example. (And I use this example because I’ve been on the receiving end of such criticism: I can’t stand Hemingway, and it was torture having to relive it when the older son was reading and explaining Old Man and the Sea for one of his classes.) Hemingway hating aside, many of us tend to use certain sets of knowledge as a reflection of intelligence, and that’s rather simplistic (and not all that intelligent of us).

The reason this particular discussion irritated me is because there is a level of classism that seems to go hand-in-hand with assumptions about mathematical literacy. While being mathematically literate is a good thing, the reality is that I’ve met very mathematically illiterate folks who were able to navigate through life with no problems. Not knowing logarithms didn’t hinder them professionally or personally. Not knowing logarithms was no indicator of their intelligence. Not knowing logarithms didn’t stop them from appreciating, or at least tolerating, Hemingway.

In my experience, math illiteracy often has a basis in background. Kids whose parents are highly educated and/or wealthy often have a greater chance of both being exposed to advanced math concepts as well as being able to use such concepts more proficiently. In my classes, I’ve noticed a huge problem: kids from larger, urban schools and who aren’t minorities seem to be more likely to stick with engineering than either minority students or those from rural backgrounds. Kids who have engineers in their family are more likely to stick with it, as well. While this isn’t a surprise, and there’s been a lot of explanation as to why this is so, I suspect exposure to and comfort with math concepts is a big factor. Not only are they already feeling at a disadvantage because they are having to start farther behind their peers in the curriculum progression, they are often advised to change majors because their lack of math implies they aren’t cut out for the rigors of a technical profession. I’ve heard about this happening to my students as well as it happening to me. (I was once told that I should never have been accepted to college because I didn’t know Euler’s formula giving the trigonometric form for imaginary numbers.)

Living through those types of experiences has made me go out of my way to ensure that my kids have an excellent background in math before entering college. At the same time, because I’ve made a point to provide that level of education, I’ve become aware of many kids who don’t have those opportunities. There are a lot of bright kids who are forced to stick with grade level instruction despite the fact it’s obvious they’d benefit from acceleration. And then there are the kids for whom rigorous instruction and acceleration aren’t possible because it’s beyond their parents’ means and ability.

Back to my friend, it was hard to convince her that these kids weren’t stupid, and she seemed unwilling to accept that there wasn’t something wrong with the world that kids who don’t understand logarithms can actually go to college. I apparently couldn’t convince her that they’d be okay and maybe they just needed a bit more guidance to assimilate into the world of mathematical literacy. Perhaps we should’ve discussed literature instead.

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