Wednesday, July 17, 2013

It's time for this meme to die

Imagine if someone at a dinner party casually announced, “I’m illiterate.” It would never happen, of course; the shame would be too great. But it’s not unusual to hear a successful adult say, “I can’t do math.” - DB, NYTimes

Which clearly raises the question: Why is it socially acceptable to say that you're bad at math but not socially acceptable to say you're bad at reading? - JW, Psych Today

Why is it acceptable in this country to say, "I'm bad at math"? Do you know many people who would admit to being semi-literate? - Change the Equation

Look, if you can't read then you can't make it through school at any level, you can't read the warning label on your meds and you'll need someone to literally hold your hand and direct you through the supermarket. You can't drive, or really navigate yourself through the streets using anything but memory and intuition. You can't send a text; you can't read an email.

People don't brag about being unable to read because (1) being unable to read would be literally debilitating to a person's everyday life in a thousand obvious ways and (2) pretty much everyone who needs to be is literate, for exactly that reason.

You will hear folks saying "I don't read for fun" or "I haven't read a novel in, like, woah" and now you've got on your hands something that is far closer to what you hear people say about math.

But the very fact that doctors, lawyers, journalists, politicians, and many, many others make light of the fact that they don't know math is all the evidence you need that you actually don't need to know math to be a successful adult in America.

And, look, I hope that we have a fun time in the comments to this post, but I'm flagging one argument right now as suspicious: "WTF michael, you need to be able to count and do addition/subtraction to get by." Yeah, of course. Is that what people are talking about when they say "Oh jeeze, I'm bad at math. Always have been." Or are they talking about, say, fractions?

Anyway, that was fun to write. I should pick fights more often. See you in the comments.


  1. I think when adults say they "don't do math" what they really struggle with are the levels of abstraction associated with concepts they have never developed deeply. Most adults can readily add and subtract because they have those concepts developed with a good understanding of why they work. When you look at the more abstract mathematics (I'm looking at you algebra), I'd guess their experience was learning rules and procedures without ever knowing why they were doing those rules and procedures. This would lead to low confidence and the feeling of "I can't do math, so I don't do math."

  2. I think that when people say they can't do math they are really sharing memories about math class. Like Chris says, their classroom experiences led to lack of confidence and made math seem like something only a few people are able to do. Is every student going to be able to achieve the same level of abstraction? Probably not. But can every student have meaningful experiences in math class so that they feel a sense of accomplishment? Absolutely. And it's our job as teachers to provide our students with experiences that allow them feel success and also help them to construct understanding.

  3. I live in a world where people say they do math all the time. When I said I was going back to the classroom, an accountant friend said, "Hit 'em hard with Algebra; I use that everyday." An oncologist on my FB last month said, "I use the Runge-Kutta approximations all the time! So glad I took that semester of Diff-E-Q back in the day!" (confession - I had to ask if he was being serious, but he said he was!) Shining moment: my husband walked into our kitchen just as a Calculus student said, "When am I ever going to need the Mean Value Theorem?" Hubby said, "Let me tell you how I used it today..."

    I think you're spot on that when people say they don't read for fun or haven't read a novel in a while, it's equitable to people who say they don't do math. Every one of us uses math when we make change, evaluate the validity of a survey, or gauge how likely it is to rain. Many of us use it even more often, but because it isn't sitting and working problems by hand, we don't associate the two.

  4. I'm right there with you, Michael. I often concede to my students that their English class is probably more important, but math can be a lot more long as their teacher doesn't suck, which I don't.

  5. An *awful lot* of people really, deeply suck at math. When somebody comes to me planning a cross country trip and says 'Okay, can you help me figure out... if we're going 75 miles an hour, how far will we go in two hours?" I know our schools failed that person (who is smart and capable).
    However, it's true: you *can* go from day to day without doing math. Just makes things like planning trips harder.
    I *do* think it's pretty serious that so, so many people have abandoned the idea that their intellect is worth developing and that they should do things like think critically. THey've accepted that they should just follow the best salesperson...

  6. It's becoming less true that you can get by without math. As technology improves, more and more professions depend on it. Two examples: marketing and politics. A generation ago, neither career was thought of as particularly math-y, but as both become data-driven you see fewer rising to the top who don't know their way around an Excel spreadsheet.

  7. For me this opens the door to discussing things such as problem-solving, procedural understanding, conceptual understanding, solving pure math equations, deriving and/or applying formulas, and critical thinking amongst others. Many of these are all related, interact with each other, and contribute to the success of one another. It leads me to believe that (personally speaking) I'd like my students to be well-rounded math students. Meaning, can they do most of those mathematical practices adequately (as a minimum). Just because a person considers their self sucky at math, doesn't mean they suck at all of those things mentioned above. In a working environment, I believe that most employers will appreciate and value a person who has good problem-solving skills, can think critically, and persevere throughout their job. I know I appreciate working and collaborating with people like that. I don't look down at someone who can't do math in the sense of solving an equation or deriving a formula. Just like I don't look down at someone who can't correctly use by, bye, or buy correctly nor someone who can't use there, they're, or their correctly. When talking with that person, I know what they mean when they "say" by, buy, or bye in the right context. Math is a language, I do believe that. Maybe the more we can treat, use, interact, or present math as a language, maybe less people will think this way. I don't know.
    As for back to school night, I'm thinking about stealing a page from Fawn's book and asking parents to refrain from telling their child that they're bad at math, or can't do math. Instead, admit that they struggled at math, but help their child to work toward problem-solving and thinking critically, allowing math to be there for them and play a part in the process.
    *BTW, did I use there, they're, and their correctly in those last two sentences? :D

  8. I teach both secondary English and Math, and let's be real: people "can't do" either. I suspect that when people think/say "I can't do math" they are thinking about calculus and fractals and linear algebra and yes, all those abstract concepts, PLUS the challenges they have with more basic fractions and multiplication and integers. But, really, how many people can actually analyze text in a profound way? How many people "write poetically" in their careers? How many people can track the changing meaning of a word throughout a text OR EVEN COMPOSE a text with subtle shifts? PLUS, how many people actually know and adhere to the grammar rules and conventions in their everyday writing? Operational fluency isn't that much difference than standardized syntax and spelling.

    The difference is, people freak out about trying to find 75% of $20 while totes writin like their gitin it. For whatever reason, math is perceived as a game that must be played by the rules, whereas it's okay to break the rules of English. Also, yes, many people (I'm thinking of my fellow Americans, here) are literate, but I really question how many have mastered, say, the 11/12th grade ELA common core standards. How many adults NEED to be able to analyze Shakespeare... and how many adults NEED to know differential calculus?

    tl;dr - I agree the meme needs to die, and I think that the issue is one of perception. Are people really literate, or do they just think they are? Are people any worse at math... or are mathematical concepts such an integral part of life that people don't see what they can do as the abstract "math" they were taught in school?

  9. I think the real issue is that most americans - and some american math teachers - have the wrong picture of what they were supposed to have learned in math class - what math really is. I don't think anyone would make an argument that people do not reason quantitatively and spacially on a daily basis and that their ability to do so directly effects their quality of life. While experiences of formal algebra and advanced functions may seem superfluous in isolation, for some they lead to a deeper understanding and more sophisticated set of tools. Their usefulness hinges on the purpose of learning the higher level business - no one should learn quadratics for the sake of knowing quadratics. In the same way, we might say that most adults do not need to be able to read poetry or interpret Aeschylus. Some more thoughts on my blog.

  10. I agree with Kelly. I would add that mathematics does several things well that other subjects struggle to do. Math isn't about solving quadratics or graphing functions (unless you're a mathematician or engineer), but it's about a way of thinking. Here are some things that mathematics offers:

    -logical development from simple to complex
    -elegance (symmetry, diversity, rhythm, balance)
    -the idea of symbol
    -the idea of a function
    -axiomatic systems

    Each of these items applies to mathematics, but also applies to just about every other system of learning one can mention. Among the most important of the items, I think, is the skill of abstraction. Abstraction is at the root of critical thinking. As Mortimer Adler said, "The ability to think abstractly lies at the root of the ability to think at all."

  11. If people couldn't read, they'd get by. Maybe not as well as people that can read, but they'd still survive. People would adapt. The same thing is true with mathematics. Without it, we can adapt, but WITH it we could do so much more. Imagine what our world could be like if saying "I just don't get math," were as taboo as "I just don't get reading."

    1. My apologies for not including my name. I typed the response quickly from my phone and would rather associate my name with a more-thought-out and well-typed response. Does it make my response any less correct to not have a name associated with it?

    2. No, you're fine, I was being a bit of a jerk. Sorry.

      You write "Imagine what our world could be like if saying "I just don't get math," were as taboo as "I just don't get reading."" That's literally the sentiment that I'm disagreeing with in this post.

      Yeah, of course you can get by without both. Of course both reading and math enrich one's life. Of course.

      But if you can't read (and I mean you literally can't read) then you can't read the instructions to your toaster. You can't read directions from a map. You can't read a sign that says 'Don't Enter! Rabid Skunk Colony.'

      It seems obvious to me that illiteracy is way more troubling than innumeracy.

    3. But it's not the sentiment you're disagreeing with in this post. The way I understand it, you're saying that people need to quit equating numeracy with literacy, which is different than imagining if the world really were "numerate" (is that the equivalent to literate?).

      I'm saying more than "What if people couldn't read?" I'm trying to make the point that if we had gotten to where we are now but with a majority of the people not being able to read, then we would have adapted. "Instructions" would have been pictures instead of words. People would be able to do all the same stuff, just without being able to read. BUT, we can read, and that makes our society that much better!

      Now think if we applied that to math. Having everyone "literate" in terms of math (or at least as many people capable of an equivalent level of mathematics as they are at reading)...I find it hard to even imagine where we would be as a society.

      I disagree with the initial thought of the post, that the mentioned meme should die, but I go beyond that. Not only should it die, but people SHOULD be just as literate with math as they are with reading or any other subject for that matter.

      As math teachers, we need students to LOVE math, and see the beauty, and realize that it IS as important as reading and writing. That it IS something that needs to be an essential part of life. Who knows the things we could do an accomplish if everyone knew math as well as they know how to read and write.

      We currently know a world where math is what it is, but what if it were more. Before the first car was invented -- or first airplane, or first computer, or first x -- people knew that world and were content with it. We know this world where only a few "know math" and are content. And we realize that reading and writing is a very important part of this world. (Darn...I keep losing my train of thought with this argument. Maybe it's not as good as I thought. I've re-written this paragraph 10 times trying to get it right.) Anyway, sure in the world we live in, reading and writing seems very important, but what if EVERYONE knew math? Imagine what the world would be like then. (Sorry if that paragraph sounds bad...tried to wrap it up as best I could.)

      (And besides, I'm not sure what "directions on a map" your talking about, but if you're talking about directions printed off the net from Google Maps, the 'thing' that allowed that best route to be found was math, so without the math, you wouldn't need the literacy in that example.)

  12. Been on vacation, so responding late.I thought "bad at math" meant "cannot think logically."And just because someone has wealth doesn't mean they're smart (note to teachers: also, you aren't dumb just because they pay you a pittance). Indeed there are huge sectors of society which are not getting by because of their illiteracy and innumeracy - people who are being scammed and defrauded every day. people who have lost their pensions, houses, families... and the literate, numerate soulless thugs who stole from the ill-educated are the ones who are "getting by."
    Remember, there's no slaughter without laughter.

  13. At the heart of this is the issue of how people perceive what 'MATH" actually is. If they equate math with their Algebra II class then many people are telling the truth if they say they never 'got' math. If they equated reading with analysis of Faulkner or Joyce then most people would honestly say that they never 'got' reading. For many reasons people do not walk out of school equating reading with literary analysis but they DO equate math with their Algebra II class.