Is Most School Math Useless?

by Gary Rubinstein

I’ve dedicated my life to teaching a subject I love and have loved since I was a small child.

This country, and throughout the world really, a lot of resources are dedicated to teaching students math. From Kindergarten to 12th grade almost every student takes math and in many elementary schools math is taught for ninety minutes a day. And then in college students often have to take some math, sometimes a Calculus class, as part of their degree, even when the degree is in something like business. And for all the time and money that are put into math in this country, when it is all done very few adults remember anything about math. Maybe they know a little about percentages and vaguely something about how the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees.

Yes, the same could be said about some of the other subjects, like how much Chemistry or Physics do most adults remember from high school, but the difference is that math is done for 13 years so you would think that more of it would be retained. Fo all that we invest into math in this country, we are not getting the ‘bang for our buck.’ I think I know why this is. I think about this on a daily basis since it is my life’s work and I’m so bothered by it. I’ve written about this before but I want to go deeper into this and explain what the issues are, what it would take to fix the problem, what the obstacles would be in improving math instruction, and whether or not it might be better to diminish the obsession that we have in this country with math instruction.

Part of my evolution in thinking about these ideas comes from watching my own kids who are now 15 and 12 go through the standard math curriculum. They have had decent teachers throughout the years and have always gotten 4s on the New York State tests so you would think that I’m thrilled but when I look at the things that they learned (because they were part of the curriculum) and the things that they have not learned (because they were not part of the curriculum) it frustrates me. Many parents who are not math teachers might feel the same way when they look at what their children are learning in math but they don’t dare question it. It reminds me of The Emperor’s New Clothes, nobody wants to seem like they aren’t smart enough to know why we have to learn how to multiply mixed numbers with different denominators. But as a math teacher who thinks about things like ‘what is the goal in learning this concept?’, ‘Is this concept needed to learn a more difficult concept?’, ‘Does this topic provide opportunity for the students to have ‘aha’ insights for themselves?’, I am constantly critiquing what I see my children learning about. And within my own teaching I am always trying to teach whatever topics are in the curriculum in a way that gives my own students an experience where they get to use their reasoning skills and not just blindly follow an algorithm.

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