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Mathematical Literacy: A necessary skill for the 21st century

February 11, 2013

Abacus

My Grade 9 math teacher was a jolly British man, and probably taught me one of the most useful things I ever learnt in high school: how to do basic math in my head (or, since I was in the British educational system, it was Grammar School). Every so often we’d go into our math class and find little bits of paper on every desk. This was a harbinger of doom – it meant we were having a 20 question surprise quiz. And not just any quiz, a mental arithmetic quiz. He would read a question out loud twice, and then we’d have to do the math. He’d give us some leeway (you didn’t have to be exact), but man did I ever hate those quizzes. At the time, they seemed impractical and a colossal waste of time. In retrospect, they were incredibly useful.

Now, being on the other side of the divide, I see something that concerns me. I regularly TA undergraduate and graduate students in statistics, and I notice that many of them, while they have all the skills to do math, are absolutely terrified of it. And as soon as you fear a subject, or don’t want to learn it, you won’t. Your mind will shut down and every instinct you have will prevent you from engaging in the material. As a result, I spend the first hour of any class I’m teaching talking to the students and determining what it is they don’t understand to tailor my sessions accordingly. But the comments generally involve variations on:

“I just don’t get math.”
“I’ve never been any good at math.”
“I don’t like it.”

Of these, the first two concern me. The third I can’t help – I don’t need my students to love math, but I do want them to understand enough to pass the course and feel comfortable interpreting statistical analyses. There’s a culture among schoolkids to dislike math and the perception that it’s largely useless. While in chemistry you can see stuff blow up, and in biology you can dissect animals, math is a largely abstract concept. That perception then manifests as a lack of interest, which results in poorer performance, and that puts people off math.

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