How To Fix Math Education in High School and College

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 10 2011 7:33 PM

How To Fix Math Education in High School and College

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A box of calculators

Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

This week, Future Tense is south of the border to attend Ciudad de las Ideas in Puebla, Mexico. The name means “City of Ideas,” and accordingly, Puebla is hosting some big thinkers, from Paul Krugman to Oliver Stone.

One of the first day’s most engaging presentations came from a self-titled “mathemagician,” Arthur T. Benjamin. In addition to teaching at Harvey Mudd College, Benjamin evangelizes for math learning by demonstrating his amazing ability to do math in his head—including squaring five-digit numbers. As he points out, most calculators can’t do that, because it requires too many numerals.

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What’s the point of this parlor trick writ large? Benjamin wants to excite people about math—particularly kids and their parents, who, respectively, have to complete and have to field complaints about math homework.

Another speaker at Ciudad de las Ideas today, NYU professor of psychology Gary Marcus, argued that schools should focus less on teaching facts—which can be easily ascertained from Google—and more on teaching them how to think. How do our brains mislead us? What biases do we have? As technology has put more information at our fingertips, Marcus believes, we need to change our schools. Benjamin agrees: He hopes that mathematical education will be less about computation—we’ve got calculators for that!—and more conceptual, like “understanding when you need to do integrals, when you need to do a square root.”

One of the primary problems with math education today, according to Benjamin, is that the sequence of courses leads students in the wrong direction. “For the last 200 years, the mathematics that we’ve learned starts with arithmetic and algebra, and everything we do after that is taking us toward one subject, calculus. I think that is the wrong mathematical goal for 90 percent of our students,” he says. “We’re now living in an age of information and data, and the mathematics that will be most relevant to our daily lives is probability and statistics.” Only some professions require calculus. Everyone reads—and many misunderstand—media reports about health, science, and the environment that contain statistics. Better literacy in probability and stats would benefit everyone.

Watch Benjamin show off his mathemagics skills at TED a couple of years ago below.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. Follow her on Twitter.