Show me the money… or something else useful…

It's not all about the money... photo credit: Flickr user "401(k) 2013" - used under Creative Commons

It’s not all about the money…
photo credit: Flickr user “401(k) 2013” – used under Creative Commons

In Sir Ken Robinson’s (@SirKenRobinson) book Out of Our Minds, he describes an economic model for our education system that is grounded in Enlightenment era philosophy.

According to Robinson, The Enlightenment is responsible for the labeling of topics as “academic.” At the risk of oversimplifying it, things that can be empirically supported are academic and things that cannot are non-academic.

For example, imagine a sunny day. According to our Enlightenment-conditioned minds, we could talk about “academic” things like the convection caused by the warming earth, the refraction causing the sky to appear blue, the air pressure causing the gentle breeze or the photosynthesis making the grass grow.

We could also talk about a lot of supposedly “non-academic” things like how beautiful the deep blue of the sky is, the lift in our spirits that comes from the sunshine, or the memories of when we were kids in the summertime. (Of course, we could try to make these academic by talking about the sunshine releasing hormones that effect the brain which lifts our spirits, or something like that.)

We’ve also labeled people as academic and non-academic. You see, anyone can feel the warmth of a sunny day, but only the smart, academic kids can understand and discuss heat transfers due to radiation from the sun, right?

And those are the smart kids who do well in math class. And those are the smart kids who get good jobs. By good jobs, we mean jobs that pay a lot of money. And if, you can make yourself academic, you can get a good job that pays a lot of money. You’ll be a smart person, too!

This message has created websites like this or this .The message: The good jobs need smart people. Math is the key to being (or looking) smart. Be smart and get paid well for it.

This message has understandably fostered a response in websites like this, which exist to assure kids that they are able to make money without the mathematics.

But wait, wait… WAIT! Why are we connecting math class to money? Does my “useless” math class only exist to get people high-paying jobs? Surely their must be a REAL reason that my classroom is full five times every day. What about people who don’t want one of those smart, mathy jobs that pay well? Equating math to money excludes significant chunks of students. It excludes future homemakers, military personnel, farmers, people who intend to follow into the family business, or people whose future goals include jobs that they KNOW aren’t going to pay well (teachers, artists, musicians, trade laborers, to name a few). To these folks, a math class that exists to get them paid well truly is useless.

Have we convinced these people they’re dumb because my math class is useless on those terms?

The worst part is that “useless” math classes (like the ones that I teach) are actually useful to all of those people. Math is more than a future paycheck. It is more than getting labeled smart or dumb. It is more than a key to some future door that you won’t appreciate now, but will be so thankful for later.

Maybe my “useless” math class can be for them. All of them. To use right now. To learn how to solve problems. To develop a linear sense of logic. To practice the art of questioning, of guessing well, and of learning to check an answer. To increase numeracy. To learn to struggle and to be patient. If my math class can do these things, then maybe my “useless” math class isn’t actually so useless after all.

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A simple economics problem

Photo Credit: Flickr user “Wonderlane” – some rights reserved

Many years to Corbin Foucart for posting “The Simple Math Behind Insurance” for the inspiration. I love simple explanation for economic issues. Some economic things are very complicated. But not all of them. Many years to Corbin for letting simple things be simple. Also, the situation with the die is completely borrowed from him. Thanks for that, too.

Suppose I came to you with a single six-sided die and offered to play a game. Here is how the game goes: If I roll a 6, I will give you $6. If I roll any other number, you have to give me $2. Would you play the game?

I would advise you not to. If we played long enough, I would certainly come out on top. Allow me to explain. For every roll, there is a 1 in 6 chance of getting any of the numbers. Suppose I rolled 36 times. There would likely be about 6 of each number, right? So, with me taking $2 for each of my rolls of numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, (that is 30 rolls), I would be raking in 60 of your dollars. I still rolled 6 sixes, so I would be giving $36 back. I am still ahead $24. Thus, the game will ultimately end up in my favor.

Now, let’s look at how this model might relate to economics. Consider insurance. We will stick to auto insurance. You know how auto insurance works, right? A person pays monthly to a company that promises to provide the funds to fix (or replace) the car in the event of an accident. You might ask yourself, “How can a company whose business is to pay for other people’s accidents make any money?”

Great question. Answer? The same way that I made money off of you in the game the started this blog post. Even though I was paying out more than I was taking in, I was five times as likely to take money in as I was to pay out. Let’s relate this to insurance.

Suppose you have a small insurance company that insures 100 people.

Each person pays you $25 per month.

The odds, in any given month, of a car getting in a wreck is 1 in 100.

If a car gets in a wreck, you pay out $2000.

This problem is a modified version of the problem posed by Mr. Gordon.

So, each month 100 people pay you $25. So, you have received $2500. Each month, one person gets in a wreck, which costs you $2000.  So, you are ahead $500. You have just become a profitable insurance company. Obviously, there are going to be months where more than one person gets in a wreck, but there will also be months were no one does. That should balance out.

Now, let’s add a variable. Suppose that you know that a certain group of people (we will call them “teenagers”) are more likely to get in a wreck. Let’s also suppose that you just added 25 of those people to your insurance business. How do you change the way you charge your customers?

Suppose the 25 teenagers have a 4 in 100 chance of getting in a wreck.

How do you change your business model? Leave some ideas in the comments. The more specific, the better. (That is, “I’d charge the teenagers more” isn’t as good as it could be. How much more? Why?)

Trucks and SUVs: Collaboration among enemies?

Photo Credit: flickr user “helicon_” – some rights reserved

Photo Credit: flickr user “danietctw” – some rights reserved

Ever wonder why I put so much stock in collaboration in class? Here is a story out of this week’s Detroit Free Press.

Toyota has the market cornered on hybrid vehicles. The Prius alone accounts for over half of the hybrid automobile market in the US. However, ask any farmer why they don’t own a hybrid and the answer will almost always mention that complete lack of towing power.

Ford is known nationwide for their powerful line of “Built Ford Tough” trucks. But, those who have them lament their lousy gas mileage.

The situation is summed up well by Sarah Laskow writing for GOOD in a piece called, “Making Hybrid Pick-ups Work for America.”

“For as long as there have been hybrids, this has been the dynamic. Weenie greenies drive hybrids. People who drive trucks rescue the hybrid drivers when their cars can’t get the job done. But five years from now, the pickup pulling a Prius out of the mud could be a hybrid itself.”

So, what to do about that? Where can an American heavy duty pick-up manufacturer and a Japanese hybrid specialist go to support their respective shortcomings?

How about to each other? According to Greg Gardner, a short-lived international alliance may be on the doorstep where Ford and Toyota work together to create a powerful, yet fuel efficient line of pick-ups and SUVs. (from “Ford, Toyota to collaborate on hybrids” published in the Detroit Free Press on August 23, 2011.)

“Ford is taking advantage of Toyota’s hybrid leadership — it has sold 3.3 million hybrid vehicles since 1997. Toyota will gain from Ford truck-making expertise.”

Here is the bottom line as far as I see it. Collaboration is the way of the future. Don’t think that these two automakers are trying to better the world. Business is still about profit margin. But, they clearly understand that by offering some of their expertise to their competitors and getting some back in return, they can create a product that there is a huge demand for. Creating such a product will benefit their profit margins, even if it helps their competitors as well.

The new economies will be collaborative and so we will learn to be collaborative. It isn’t about reaching higher than those around you. It is about reaching as high as you can. Sometimes that means giving your competitors a boost because you know they can give you one back.