Making math relevant?

Good rhetorical question from SMBC: “Do kids ever look up from Minecraft or Pokemon cards or a Harry Potter book and say ‘This is boring because it’s not relevant to real life’?”

And yet that’s exactly what too many kids do say about math class.

And too many adults take them at their word. I wrote about this issue two years ago; check out that link. The problem is, at its core, a misapplication of logic, common these days in right-wing circles, since right-wingers often think like adolescents: they conflate “A and B” with “if A then B.” It’s true that many students are bored in math class, and it’s true that much of middle- and high-school math is (or appears to be) irrelevant to real life, so people jump to the conclusion that said students are bored because their math class isn’t relevant. This is what philosophers call the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. That SMBC cartoon is right. Go read it now.

I started teaching in 1969, in the heart of the ’60s. (As some of us remember, the ’60s didn’t actually extend from 1960 to 1969 but from 1963 to 1973.) The big cry from politically minded students at the time was relevance. They wanted all their courses to be relevant. It was never clear just what that meant: was it math they could use right now, today, or was it math that dealt with the issues of the time, like the Vietnam war? I never knew. They never knew.

A recent New York Times article is related to these issues. Unfortunately it’s a bit confusing, even though it’s written by Siobhan Roberts (I blame the editors), but it’s worth reading anyway. Soldier past the words you don’t know, like holonomy and aphantasia—unless, of course, you have aphantasia or know someone who does.

Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning