“Useless” Math Class – Misconception #1

In my previous post, I commented on how struck I was upon reading an embittered writer’s rant about having to take a “useless” math class. I mentioned four main misconceptions that we math teachers have allowed to take root in the modern academic mindset. I will now address misconception #1:

“Math is about numbers. Writing is about words. Wordy people write. Numbery people math.”

I want to start by saying that writing and math can both be treated as stand-alone topics. You can study math or you can study writing… but most of us don’t. We are typically doing either one of those things about something else. Perhaps my situation revolves around a car, but I may need to use math and writing to deal with this situation. At that point, math and writing are vehicles (pun definitely intended), but the car is still the focus of the situation.

Now, it has been said that math is a language of its own. (In fact, here is a book about it, if you want to read it.) I understand the point behind such a statement. However, in the end, math doesn’t have it’s own language. Sure there are mathematicians who can cross cultural barriers by writing everything in set notation, but among “non-mathy” folks,  mathematics requires a common tongue. In this way, math is just like anything else.  “Два яблока добавил еще два яблока в четыре яблока” is meaningless to anyone who doesn’t speak Russian and it wouldn’t matter if that was a math statement, a religious statement or a question about sale on ground beef.

Beyond that,  consider what kinds of mathematics “non-mathy” folks are talking about in everyday conversation. Nay-sayers are correct when they say that it probably isn’t going to be formal mathematics. But, it will be important. The cop gives directions to a lost citizen. The salesman explains a payment plan to a potential buyer. The marketers discuss the exposure rates of a type of advertising. The psychologist explains the results from a study to a therapy patient. The professional athlete figures out how to invest his or her signing bonus. (By the way, these types of communication fall into “mathematical literacy” as discussed by Jan De Lange in this paper.)

Unskilled wordsmiths tying to have those conversations are going to leave with more questions than answers. Those aren’t necessarily simple conversations to have. They require patience, dialogue and WORDS. Good words. Accurate words.

And where do people get a chance to discuss complex mathematical situations? In “useless” math classes… like the ones I teach!

When done properly, math class provides an opportunity for students to struggle and stumble over the wording of math situations. To listen to an explanation and respond with a targeted question. The students develop the use of specific vocabulary and learn when to use it.

So, why do wordy people have to take my “useless” math class? Because we need you. We need you folks who are good with words to help us figure out how to explain the math to the rest of the world. Sure, there are “numbery” people there to figure the tough mathematics out, but without the “wordy” people we are left with Sheldon Cooper to explain the math to the rest of us.


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