Compulsory Math is a Bizarre Institution

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  • 17 April 2018

Math is vital to civilization. But it doesn’t follow that everyone should be made to study it.

Math is a ubiquitous requirement in school curriculums all over the world, even though most adults don’t know any math and are no worse for the wear. So what gives? Why do we require every child in the country to receive 10-13 years of instruction in math?

One reason seems to be that math is a natural fit for our data-obsessed society; math skills are easier to measure than other types of academic skills, and educators and policy makers can compare scores, compile data, make comparisons, and utilize it all for political ends. Another reason is just that, having signed kids up for compulsory education, we need to find something for them to do, and math fits the bill nicely: it takes lots and lots of time to get a classroom of diverse cognitive abilities on the same page and progressing together through sets of skills, plus all those numbers and equations look good on a blackboard, and there’s always more worksheets if you finish early. Presumably, math is also relevant to making a living, but that’s only true for a select few.

Whatever the reasons, we plow an unfathomable amount of resources into math instruction. Conservative calculations (done with calculator) yield an estimate of 2,000 hours of math instruction per pupil in the US school system. That’s 80 days of math. As in, 80 full 24 hour periods, no bathroom breaks or meals included. A few other conservative calculations (done with calculator) yield an estimate of $30,000 spent on each pupil’s 80 days of torture. Er, I mean math instruction. And by the way, the massive investment isn’t doing us much good anyway.

Just how much math does the average person need to know anyway? The other day, I was driving around with someone (who will remain anonymous here) as they were figuring a few money-related matters out, and at one point they needed to know the difference between 32 and 8(!) What do you think they did? They used the calculator app on their iPhone to perform the calculation. They laughed while they did it, and remarked derisively that the “A” they had earned in high school calculus “wasn’t worth sh*t anymore.” Not figuring 32-8 in your head may be an extreme example, but let’s be honest: most of us don’t know math and it doesn’t matter at all.

Still, it does seem reasonable to suggest that a basic understanding of mathematical concepts is necessary to operate effectively in the world, especially for young people, who may need to know more than the basic concepts in order to accomplish a goal entirely unrelated to math (such as gain admission to a particular college). But math doesn’t need to be compulsory, and actually, just like reading, it doesn’t need to be formally taught at all. Here are three reasons why:

  1. Math is just one language, one way of thinking about and interacting with the world - one of many, and it suits the disposition and cognitive capacities of only a fraction of the population. Requiring everyone to study it for more than a decade means that people who are not mathematical will have less time for the language/modality/skill-sets that suit them better. And they will be branded as failures and feel inadequate and ashamed for not being mathematically inclined.
  2. Math can be learned on the job. All the math skills the average person needs to get by can be learned in a matter or months, or even weeks or days, without any fuss - when that person is motivated to learn them. Around 20% of workers actually need math in their careers, but even they can learn the math they need relatively quickly - on the job, or in training for a specific job. You won’t get stuck in your chosen career path because you didn’t master Pythagorean triples when you were a kid; if it turns out you need that knowledge at your job as, say, a machinist, then you’ll learn it. This is one of the cornerstone insights of self-directed learning: you will learn what you need to learn in order to do your life. Math is no exception. Here at HVSS, students often learn basic math principles and concepts in order to run the school store, for example, or to run their own small business or even just to play the games they want to play.
  3. Without interest, math instruction is meaningless, needless, and useless. Most people are not interested or moved by math. Schools have some success using incentives to get students to learn it, but they can’t get anyone to be actively interested in it. Most people forget almost all the math they learn in school, and they aren’t going to be the people who get careers which depend heavily on math anyway. Only people who have a knack for it and find it compelling are going to become really effective at working with it. And those people don’t need to be made to learn math - you wouldn’t be able to stop them if you wanted to.

And worse. What makes compulsory math worse than a mere waste of time and money is the anger, frustration, and other negative emotions it engenders in large segments of the school-going population, not to mention the missed opportunities for spending that time in an engaging and enjoyable way.

The sweet spot. At our school, people who are interested in math can study it all they want. Others can study it when it becomes relevant to their lives; usually this comes up in relation to money, but other goals and activities sometimes provide the impetus as well. An overt example is the group of teenagers who decided they wanted to transfer to their local public high schools. In order to enter in the tenth grade, they needed to take the NY State Regents Algebra Exam, so they undertook a formal study of math for the first time in their lives; all of them performed well and entered tenth grade the following school year. These students weren’t hindered in the least by never having studied math before - and they hadn’t been burned-out or turned off, either. That’s how self-directed education platforms like our school create a sweet spot for math: students here learn the math they need, whether that’s a little or all of it, and they don’t waste time or get hurt doing math when they don’t want to or aren’t ready.