One-Word Math Classes

You know what’s often missing from math class? Yes, candy bars, but even more important than that: coherence.

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Math class shouldn’t be a mishmash pile of facts, thrown together haphazardly, like an academic version of The White Album. It should be a perfectly interlocking tower of truths, climbing upwards with singular purpose—an academic Sgt. Pepper or Abbey Road.

A good class isn’t a greatest hits record. It’s a concept album.

In that spirit, I’ve been taking each topic in the secondary math curriculum—algebra, geometry, calculus, etc.—and trying to boil it down to its one-word essence. Here are the rules of the game:

  1. You must choose a single word to complete the sentence, “[Branch of math] is the mathematics of _____.”

For example, you might say, “Topology is the mathematics of dinosaurs,” or “Category theory is the mathematics of abstraction,” or “Combinatorics is the mathematics of sadness.” (To be clear, only one of those is remotely accurate; you have my sympathy, combinatorists.)

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US vs. UK: Mathematical Terminology

I’m an American, born and bred. I revere the 14th Amendment, root for the New England Patriots [dodges rotten fruit], and can rattle off all 44 presidents.

Yet here I find myself, in Birmingham.

Not Alabama. England.

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In some ways, it’s not so different. As my friend John advised before I moved: “The British speak English, care about money, and yell about politics. You’ll barely notice you’ve left.” But it’s not quite like home: the spellings, the roundabouts, the big red buses—and, most relevant for a teacher like me, the sometimes startling differences in the ways our two countries educate kids.

In less than a year of teaching, I’ve encountered some surprising disparities, each of which prompts the obvious question: Which way is better, the British or the American?

I have nothing to gain by these comparisons. If I favor America, my judgments will be dismissed as jingoism (just like 97% of the other things I say). And if I favor Britain, I will have my surrender lorded over me for months to come by English teenagers. Thus, I find myself in a predicament similar to many facing America today: a lose-lose situation. And, in the true American spirit, I shall plunge forward anyway.

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America Will Run Out Of Good Questions By 2050

Or, Math Class is Too Full of Spoilers

In grad school, my wife took a class that assigned no homework. The topic was an advanced, hyper-specific area of research—the only plausible problems to give for homework had literally never been solved. Any answer to such a question would have constituted novel research, advancing the field and meriting a publication in a professional journal. The professor assigned no homework for the simple reason that there was no practical homework to assign.

This tickled me. I’d never thought of good questions like a fossil fuel. A nonrenewable resource. Built up over eons and consumed in minutes.

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But the thought kept popping back up: Good questions are a resource. And in this new light, something started to make sense, an uncomfortable little fact that had nagged at me since my first year teaching. Continue reading

A Math Teacher’s Guide to Explaining Technology to Your Parents

This is my second century. I was 13 when it began—young enough to be almost fluent, but old enough that my technological skills retain a quaint 20th-century accent. (For example, I still use email.)

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My parents’ generation, on the other hand, didn’t encounter the 21st century until they were full-grown adults. They’d settled into their habits when this digital tide began rising around them: Facebook, Twitter, viral videos, actual computer viruses, Android, Snapchat, gifs, Reddit…

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And so was born that tragicomedy of 21st-century life: young people trying to explain technology to their parents. It’s frustrating both for the kids (“Why are you so incompetent?!”) and for the parents (“Why do I need this stupid device anyway?!”).

“This is so easy. Why can’t you do it?” vs. “This is so hard. What’s the point?” Now, why does that sound so familiar…?

Oh, that’s right! Because I’m a math teacher. Continue reading

Metric Time

Aside from you chronically late people, we all know how time works:

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This system is okay. But also, it’s kind of crazy.

Why 60 minutes per hour? Why 60 seconds per minute? It goes back to Babylon, with their base 60 number system—the same heritage that gives us 360 degrees in a circle. Now, that’s all well and good for Babylon 5 fans, but our society isn’t base-60. It’s base-10. Shouldn’t our system of measuring time reflect that?

So ring the bells, beat the drums, and summon the presidential candidates to “weigh in,” because I hereby give you… metric time.

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Now, this represents a bit of a change. The new seconds are a bit shorter. The new minutes are a bit longer. And the new hours are quite different—nearly two and a half times as long.

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So why do this? Because it’d be so much easier to talk about time!

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The Math Ceiling: Where’s your cognitive breaking point?

One afternoon, the head of my department caught me in the staff room and posed a musing question.

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(He later confessed that he was just curious if he could play puppet-master with this blog. The answer is a resounding yes: I dance like the puppet I am.)

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So, do we have ceilings?

The traditional orthodoxy says, “Absolutely yes.” There’s high IQ and low IQ. There are “math people” and “not math people.” Some kids just “get it”; others don’t.

Try asking adults about their math education: They refer to it like some sort of NCAA tournament. Everybody gets eliminated, and it’s only a question of how long you can stay in the game. “I couldn’t handle algebra” signifies a first-round knockout. “I stopped at multivariable calculus” means “Hey, I didn’t win, but I’m proud of making it to the final four.”

But there’s a new orthodoxy among teachers, an accepted wisdom which says, “Absolutely not.” Continue reading