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Is Learning Math Relevant Anymore?

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 “What is the point of learning math? It’s just busy work! I’ll never have to use this!”

It’s the cry of injustice! Innocent children uprising against the irrelevant subjects foisted upon their brains. My son says he knows he won’t need this, this math stuff. Can’t you just see his indignant finger waving at the open book filled with equations, powers of, and quotients? Can you feel the thud reverberate as the notebook is slammed onto the table? What is the point?

Really, what is the point? I asked that same question in the face of high school math. It’s a right of passage, I think, for all children to come to the realization that what they learn in school may not necessarily be readily (or ever) applied to their grander schemes of what they will be when they grow up and have to pay the bills.

Honestly, pre-algebra is not easily applied to an 11-year-old’s life (or to a 41-year-old’s life for that matter). I get it. I have lived through that state of formulaic fog, that computation confusion. My school life was filled with math failures (that is plural) and I’ve lived to rise above them all.

Geometry was my first failure. Cosigns and tangents and hypotenuses! Oh my! There was no meaning for me in those angles and lines and planes in the 10th grade. A strong B student my entire school career, this F was chilling. So geometry appeared on my class schedule in 11th grade too.

This failure, this blemish, this black-mark on my record required a trip to the guidance counselor. I begged and pleaded for him to tell me why this subject was even necessary. I wasn’t going to be a math teacher, a mathematician, scientist, or a doctor, so what was the point?

That counselor of guidance said I had to take geometry because he had to take it and that was that. That’s the way it is and you won’t graduate without it. Translated it becomes: because I told you so! Well, that’s 1980’s high school guidance for ya.

With an extreme pout, and not surprisingly a terrible attitude, I took that inglorious step backward on the linear line of high school math and showed up for another round of torture. The second time was smooth sailing and I got back in that B-grade zone. Why? Heck if I know.

Different teacher, maybe. Perhaps because the class was taught in a classroom inside a building this time instead of a portable at the end of the farthest parking lot and the shack was either frigid or sweltering. Or simply, the second time was a charm and it sunk in.

Senior year brought me to the next level of high school math. Was it Algebra II, maybe? Again I was thrown into a spiral of confusion and failure. By the time my buddy, the guidance counselor, learned of my impending F, CSU Chico had already accepted me for the fall semester.

The math-graduation equation was still crystal clear but a loophole was presented. I could re-take the math class during the first semester of college.

In college it’s no longer called Algebra II, it’s dumbed down to Basic Math and affectionately called bone-head math by the students. As with geometry, the second round was smooth and I got my B.

What lesson did I learn? I typically excel when the information is repeated in a different way. That lesson has served me well in life. Hearing the message multiple times in a different way can bring me greater understanding. I also learned that geometry did become hugely useful in my life despite my cry of injustive3.

In my 20s, I learned to quilt and I love, love, love it. In my after-college career life, I met other women who loved to sew and we decided to get even more crafty by taking a quilting class.

It’s a love affair that continues to this day. Get this, it’s a hobby, something I freely choose to do because I love it. My hobby is based on geometry – completely, entirely, could not exist without the fundamentals of this, once elusive form, of math.

My adult-self has been enriched by knowing geometry. My teenage-self could not grasp this idea. This knowledge has allowed me to design my own quilts and correct the flawed directions of a quilt I was working on.

See the pretty quilt in the picture? I was well into the process of sewing together the geometric pieces of fabric that I had painstakingly measured and cut when I realized the directions were wrong.

Should I track down the designer? Try to get a new set of directions created and sent to me? I saw that as a futile and a ridiculous wast of time.

A few sheets of graph paper, a ruler and one day later, I recalculated the instructions, drew the correct design with accurate dimensions, and I even added a colorful border. Six months later the quilt was finished to perfection.

As a sophomore in high school, I could not see the joy of geometry. Only when I found something I liked did the knowledge make sense and it provided value in my life. Thankfully, my smooth sailing second round of geometry class provided the basis on which I could develop my quilting skills.

This roller coaster ride of math was explained to my son but, that didn’t make his math assignment any easier. It’s exposing you to something new, I told him. A new way of thinking. How will you know if you like math unless you get in there and give it a try? I asked. Parents, don’t try this line of argument at home.

As the words were coming out of my mouth, I could already see his rebuttal forming: I don’t like what I’ve tried so why go on? Why go on!! This strand of argument cannot be won when presented to an 11-year-old, or frankly any age.

I had to find a better answer. Yes, I asked Google. Surprise! I was on the right track with my argument of exposing young minds to new ideas. Dr. Math agreed with me. He also agreed with my son and my high school self. But a point for mom nonetheless!

On, Dr. Math had heard and answered the very same “Why” question many times. He shared a secret with the internet world: “The reason you’re being forced to study math has nothing to do with whether you’ll use it or not. You probably won’t. Hardly anyone does.”

Gasp! Ack! Sputter! Cough! Why, that’s music to the students ears, fingers nails on the chalk board to the teachers but will not get my son to finish his assignment. Read on, beleaguered parents.

Dr. Math went on to explain, “What you’re actually supposed to be learning in math class is the art of problem reduction, i.e., starting with a problem, reducing it to a simpler problem, reducing that to a simpler problem, and so on, until you end up with a problem that’s trivial to solve.”

Trivial to solve,” is debatable. I would say more manageable to solve but, I love his premise. Leaning math, and learning in general, is about problem solving and life is a series of problems to solve, no matter what line of work or higher education or activities of interest we pursue, at any age.

I’m certain my high school guidance counselor had this concept at the tip of mind but just couldn’t form that into a problem solving solution which leads my adult self to wonder about his high school math grades!

Building upon Dr. Math’s profound postulation, I add the greater idea of, everything is based on math in some form or fashion whether we are aware of it or not. This entire essay was written and published on a computer, the quilt photo was processed from a negative then chemically processed and printed (we’re talking old school film and paper photo here) then scanned into my computer to include in this post.

Today, I had the rare pleasure of browsing a bookstore, sans children. I know I don’t have to tell you but I’m still going to say it: It was bliss. I stumbled upon a book titled “Geometry: The Size and Shape of Everyday Math”, appropriate as I was mulling over this post, authored by Mike Askew – no joke!

Of course a book to set straight the idea of math in everyday live is written by Mr. Askew.

Mr. Askew (I’ve got to giggle!) says, “A mathematician once noted that anyone who thinks mathematics is difficult simply hasn’t appreciated how complicated the real world is. Pythagoras’ theorem marks a mathematical certainty in a complicated world.”

I can tell Mr. Askew (still giggling) that Pythagoras did eventually provide certainty to my complicated quilting world; just look at all those triangles in that quilt. I tell my guidance counselor that I learned how to solve my geometric quilt problem by the injustice of repeating two different math classes.

There is more math than I can fathom associated with using a computer, typing words into a word-processing program, and publishing to an internet server so that this conversation is available for all of cyberspace to enjoy. And while I didn’t have to formulate any equations or write the code in order to write these words, I can appreciate the math that lives behind it.

I can also appreciate the problem solving skills behind this magnificent machinery that conveys my thoughts and photos as well as the problem solving skills that allowed me to tackle this writing project and see it through from a tickling thought to a completed work.

Thank you, math, for bringing me around to yet another problem solved, or as I prefer to call it, challenge. If it weren’t for learning, failing, and learning again I may not be the problem solver that I am today.


 Math photo credit: Grant Cochrane

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  • comment avatar Amber Johnson March 15, 2012

    “What you’re actually supposed to be learning in math class is the art of problem reduction, i.e., starting with a problem, reducing it to a simpler problem, reducing that to a simpler problem, and so on, until you end up with a problem that’s trivial to solve.”

    Soooo, that’s why! I’m going to keep this quote handy for my daughter because she’s doing to need it. She’s already struggling in second grade math!

    • comment avatar Heather March 15, 2012

      Amber, my daughter is in 2nd grade too and struggles with math. She hasn’t begun to ask “why” she has to learn it like her brother. I feel like I’m better equiped to talk through the question with both kids.

  • comment avatar JoAnn March 15, 2012

    I love math. Do I love math because it was easy for me, or was it easy for me because I love it? Probably a bit of both.

    Luckily, my daughter loves math, too. Her teachers have her working a couple grades above a “typical” kid her age, and she’s thriving. The concepts they’re introducing her to are amazing.

    I love helping her with new concepts, too, and luckily, she’s at a school that teaches a similar style of math that I learned and not “Every Day Math” or “Investigations.” (I know there is huge debate out there about these forms of “new” math and how much the parents are struggling! I have lots of friends sharing their woes of “new” math.)

    What would I do if I had a kid who hated math? I’m glad I don’t have to find out…

    • comment avatar Heather March 15, 2012

      Yeah for you and your daughter loving math and working together on it! I have heard the same complaint from other parents that the “new” math presents a huge challenge for the adults. It’s like learning math all over again!

  • comment avatar Gretchen White March 16, 2012

    I believe math teaches more than math, if you know what I mean.

    It teaches people how to think, how to problem-solve, how to deduce, estimate. It requires discipline, order, and points to beauty as well. I have a degree in English for a reason — math (especially algebra) is not my friend. I wish it could have been my pal. I did very, very well in geometry, though. It came intuitively.

    Will the average person ~need~ to be able to do calculus? Never. But we must still offer it for the super math minds because we need bridges, buildings, rockets, chemistry formulas. It’s nice to have those things actually work. Kids who are mathematically minded should be identified, challenged, and encouraged early in life—but don’t give up on the rest of us, either.

    • comment avatar Heather March 16, 2012

      I completely agree, Gretchen! It’s a hard subject to learn, for many of us, but it really does teach more than adding number and drawing triangles.

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