Make Math Relevant – A Humanities Perspective

I am passionate about education, like everybody else at SOWISO. However, we are a STEM education company, and my personal academic background is in Japanese language and anthropology. So I might not be the perfect person to talk about how to make math relevant, but maybe that’s exactly what makes me qualified.

As a student, language education was always exciting to me. I was able to joke around, and make silly sentences that only had to make grammatical sense. I was also able to learn about and discuss social issues through reading foreign newspapers. A little later, as a language teacher, I was able to organize fun exercises that allowed my students to be creative and come up with original conversations or stories to tell.

It made sense to me to study Japanese; it was playful and fun, while math was boring and without any creativity. I believed that for a long time. My own research into Japanese subcultures allowed me to combine research with what I saw and enjoyed in my personal life. Math would never let me do that, right?

Looking back, I still recognize where those feelings came from. But I also realize those sentiments weren’t based on reality. And I realize why.

E to the pi times I – xkcd

In February, Andrew Hacker, who teaches mathematics at Queens College published an excellent opinion piece in The New York Times titled “The Wrong Way to Teach Math,” in which he explains the problem: students cannot see how formulas connect with the lives they’ll be leading.

This reflects what Sol Garfunkel (executive director of the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications) and David Mumford (emeritus professor of mathematics at Brown University) write in a different New York Times op-ed piece. They rightfully ask the reader “how often do most adults encounter a situation in which they need to solve a quadratic equation? […] Do they need to know what constitutes a ‘group of transformations’ or a ‘complex number?’”

These three mathmaticians argue that in order to make math relevant and fun to teenagers and young adults, we need to move math from the highly abstract to the practical.

And I completely agree. As a high schooler, I used to joke about the questions that popped up in my textbook, for example: ‘Mary has 78 blue marbles and 209 red marbles, how big is the chance the first marble she picks at random is blue?’. How did Mary end up in that situation and why is she picking marbles at random?

Evolving Our Math Education

So what can we do to improve students’ learning experience? Andrew Hacker has some good suggestions. For example, he asks his students to visualize data and asks students to think about different ways to represent data. For more information on why this is important, this fun, short animation does a good job of explaining!

Make Math Relevant: Why people should learn statistics

Statistics are a great way of using math while also researching issues that teenagers and adolescents see around them. For example, Andrew Hacker point out the oportunity in allowing students to study and discuss the difference between the change in fertility rates between caucasian and black Americans.

I would add issues of, for example, immigration, age, technology use, or gender, which also lend themselves well for these type of learning opportunities. They allow for mathematical analyses that are accompanied by stories that are relevant to children and adults alike. By exploring them, we allow students to the different ways math is used in the real world. Furthermore, we can show them it’s not difficult to be engaged while they learn math.

I believe a lot of examples can be taken directly from life. As adults, we struggle with many problems that require math and we have never learned how to solve them effectively. When is it better to buy or lease a new car? How to read medical results and decide where to go from there? How do mortgages work?

Why shouldn’t we learn how to think about these problems while we’re still in school? Chances are we’ll need them before we need to define complex numbers.

What we therefore need is improving numeracy: the ability to understand and work with numbers. As Garfunkel and Mumford write: “in math, what we need is ‘quantitative literacy,’ the ability to make connections whenever life requires and ‘mathematical modeling,’ the ability to move practically between everyday problems and mathematical formulations.”

We then see that math education isn’t so different from the way we teach humanities. Both are able to provide knowledge and abstract skills, and work best when doing so.

Let’s talk again soon,



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