...and it really did get me thinking. In the short TED talk, math teacher John Bennett seeks to answer the question of whether higher level math classes should be required in middle and high school years, or not.
When asked the inevitable question by his students - "Why do we need to know this stuff anyway?" Mr. Bennett moved through a progression of answers.
- Math is all around us. Which is true, but doesn't necessarily answer the question. Fibonacci numbers and golden ratios are cool, but useful? Maybe not.
- Math is helpful and necessary for technological advancements. That's great if you want to be an engineer, but what about for the rest of us?
- You might need math in a future career. How many people do you know, apart from math teachers, who actually use higher math in their work? I know one - my nephew. He's a rocket scientist (or something along that line). Mind you, he was a high school drop out, too. But, really the majority of working Americans do not need higher math to carry out the tasks of their employment.
- You need math to do well on the SATs. You need to do well on the SATs to get into a good university. You need a university degree to land a high paying, fulfilling career. The first two statements might be true, but the last one, especially in light of the recent economic turmoil, is open for debate.
Finally, Bennett settles on the fact, that higher math, algebra and beyond, teach inductive and deductive reasoning skills. Skills, which Bennett feels could be learned through educational, strategy games. He suggests then, making middle school and high school math classes elective courses, for those interested in math based careers, or with a general interest in math.
I've gone through all the progressions above already, both in answering the question for myself, in debate with my husband (who is not a lover of math), and with my children, especially now that my oldest are moving into algebra, geometry and beyond. Like Bennett I've come to the point that when the children ask when they are ever going to need the math they are learning, I answer - probably never.
So, why do I keep teaching it?
That's the question I've been pondering all afternoon. Strangely enough, as I considered the thought, my mind kept wandering to "The Feeling of Power", Isaac Asimov's short story about a future where people have lost the ability to perform even simple arithmetic without a computer.
While the children were eating dinner, I found a copy of it online to read to them, and in the very last lines of the story, as Programmer Schuman considers his newly acquired ability to multiply sums, I found the answer for which I'd been grasping.
Nine times seven, thought Shuman with deep satisfaction, is sixty-three, and I don't need
a computer to tell me so. The computer is in my own head.
And it was amazing the feeling of power that gave him.
Why did I study algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus in high school and college, when I suspected I'd never use any of it? Why do I insist my own children learn it, even though my suspicions have now been confirmed?
Because, it's knowledge, and knowledge is power, right? Francis Bacon said it, or if he didn't, every teacher I ever had, did. In fact, if I remember right, that phrase was usually used along with a patriotic speech, about it being our duty as good citizens to become educated, because knowledge is power, and an educated population means a powerful nation.
Of course, those same teachers also taught, usually during a Shakespeare unit, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
And, 1 Corinthians 8:1 warns knowledge puffs us up.
So then, if knowledge is power and power corrupts and knowledge makes us proud, an educated nation might be powerful, corrupt and proud. Hmmm...that might be deductive reasoning, but I'm pretty sure it belongs more in freshman philosophy, than algebra II.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not ready to jump on the "ignorance is bliss" bandwagon. I still think math is important. I just think we've got to come up with some better reasons for teaching it, or maybe, just maybe, start using it.
It's great to be a homeschooler.