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!

Continue reading

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

She Wants Us to Study for Math

Our teacher’s gone utterly crazy.
No one can fathom her wrath.
She wants us to do the impossible:
She wants us to study for math.

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How can you study for something
where talent is so black-and-white?
You get it, or don’t.
You’ll pass, or you won’t.
It’s pointless to put up a fight.

Her mind must have leaked out, like water,
and slipped down the drain of the bath.
I might as well “read up on breathing”
as study for something like math.

Math’s an implacable tyrant,
a game that I never can win.
And even if I stood a prayer of success,
how would I even begin?

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My teacher, the madwoman, told me:
First, list the things that you know.
Her mind’s gone to rot.
Still, I’ll give it a shot,
though I’m sure that there’s nothing to—

oh!

Continue reading

The Math Major Who Never Reads Math

In college, I was one of those compulsive read-everything kids. I even felt pangs of guilt when I skipped optional reading. But there was one gaping hole in this policy of mine, large enough to squeeze a whole degree through.

I never did the reading for math. You know, my major.

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I’m not proud of it, but I know I’m not alone. As students from primary school to PhD have discovered, mathematical writing is a different beast. It’s not just a matter of jargon, equations, or obscure Greek letters. It’s something more basic about the way mathematical texts are structured and paced.

The trick is this: In mathematics, you say things precisely once.

(And no, I’m not going to repeat that.)

Continue reading

How to Avoid Thinking in Math Class

the first post in a series
(see also parts 2, 3, and 4)

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“I’m planning a series of posts,” I told my dad the other day as he drove me home from the airport. “The title is How to Avoid Thinking in Math Class.”

Before I could get any further, he rubber-stamped the idea. “That sounds great! I always tell people, the point of school is to help you not to think.”

It’s a good thing he was the one behind the wheel, because if it were me, I’d have slammed the brakes and spat my latte all over the windshield.

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Continue reading