Our students are failing in math because, except in rare classrooms, it’s not connected to anything. Math’s relationship to real-world problems has seemingly been lost.
I WAS raised in a home where arithmetic was important. Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s in suburban, car-oriented Detroit, my father always carried a slide rule and wore a white-shirt-pocket-protector. Dad had attended a trade school instead of a traditional high school and went on to become an automotive engineer.
At home we were encouraged to estimate, add, subtract and divide in our head. Paper and pencil were used as a last resort. But they weren’t just theoretical problems; math was our tool to solve real problems.
In my early twenties, I became an educator, certified to teach elementary and middle school. My first job was teaching fifth graders in rural Michigan. The first thing I did was build a really big table.
It took over a corner of the classroom — it was large and very cool. It needed to be big because I had 30 students, all needing to learn math. It was cool because, well, because it became the focal point of our hands-on building classes. It was here that we learned safe usage of simple hand tools, the designing and building of bird houses, puppet stages and personal projects. Basic arithmetic using a ruler to measure became the tool to accurately build our projects. Students were not afraid of math; they embraced it; they loved it; they wanted more.
Moving to Washington, my own career veered in the direction of teacher-training. As a multicounty educational consultant, one of my responsibilities was to advise, place and observe university students wanting to become teachers.
The most frustrating of those observations was in seeing how far math classes had gotten away from practicality and into abstractions. Applied math seemed to be nowhere in sight. It’s no wonder that 20 percent of American high school students don’t graduate, with the main academic reason being that they fail 9th grade algebra.
In addition, under 10 percent of our jobs make use of algebra or other advanced math courses. Abstract math that has no real relationship to anything the student is interested in, or can use, now seems to be the norm. Our students are failing in math because, except in rare classrooms, it’s not connected to anything. Math’s relationship to real-world problems has seemingly been lost.
It is time to change the perspective and relook at mathematics as a tool to solve practical problems. It’s time to bring back arithmetic that’s connected to something. Besides, we could all use another well designed bird house!