Ben’s Math Education Response in Terms of Carts & Horses *AWESOME REMIX*

Another in our series of Ben’s ramblings Patented Wisdom BOLTS that didn’t make it to air! This week Chad asked us about our thoughts on math education, and Ben had things to say. We were running long I Didn’t want the reader’s ears to explode with wisdom so I didn’t read it, but I’ve posted Chad’s question here followed by Ben’s response. It’s interesting stuff from the newly minted PhD and teacher  the prophet of thunder, so hopefully you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I did. And make sure you listen to the full episode from this Ep 110 – Back to School!

-Ryan (with edits by Ben)

This is primarily directed at Ben and Charlie – the math and physics guys, but I am sure everyone will have an opinion… The subject may be a little out of context, but ,there was recently an op-ed piece in the NY Times about changing the way we approach the way math is taught – proposing that we lose the geometry, trig, pre-calc, calculus progression and swap in more contextual subjects such as finance, data and engineering to convey the math concepts.
Given that complex math is such an integral (pardon the pun) part of science – especially physics, do we risk losing some good minds by “dumbing down” our math instruction?
No worries if this doesn’t fit the discussion.


Lets talk about this in terms of carts and horses.

so right now, the math education system goes “hey, lets teach the horses to get all harnessed up and push carts from behind. There’s all sorts of carts they can push. physics carts. economics carts. logical reasoning carts. biology and business. plus, it’s a good way to weed out the really strong horses that are good at pushing, and the horses trained this way get really strong”.

on the other hand, the writer of the article [who proposed replacing abstract subjects, with subject specific problem solving] suggests that in doing so, we are putting the cart in front of the horse. His argument, to paraphrase, is that “most horses walk must better when they can see where they are going. and that more horses will get stronger and better at walking in the process.”

I can kind of see both sides of this issue. As a physicist who has to take math classes on occasion (*ughhh*) I can say that it’s MUCH EASIER to learn math when you know where it’s going. And as a math educator, i can honestly say that there is a canonical way of teaching math which desperately needs re-evaluation. In so far as university mathematics goes, I think that the education system reinforces its teaching practices, selecting the students who best learn math in this specific way, and who go on to teach the math in the same way.


On the other hand, as I said before regarding horses: the current education system (especially at the precalculus level) selects out the students who are good at this type of problem solving, and furthermore this abstract education makes people stronger at math. Do you think that more people would enroll in engineering if we taught math differently in high school? I’d wager exactly the same number of people would enroll in engineering. What’s more, from experience, learning the theory and practicing in the abstract often makes for stronger and more versatile thinkers. I can’t imagine learning calculus only from a physics course. or algebra only from a… what? a physics course?

It’s clear that innumeracy is one of the “problems” which we want our golden society of the future to have conquered. So yes, i’d like our math education to be more inclusive. Is it a question of quality or curriculum? maybe it’s both. but we should make note of one important thing before we take an axe to the pythagorean theorem. Math is a useful and wonderful tool because it is (by it’s very nature) abstract. it’s the most abstract of all the subjects. In this light, wouldn’t taking the abstraction out of the math class be like taking the lyricism out of poetry class?

get that horse back behind the cart where it belongs.
stupid horses.

horses are stupid


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5 Responses to Ben’s Math Education Response in Terms of Carts & Horses *AWESOME REMIX*

  1. benNo Gravatar 3 November, 2011 at 8:36 am #

    that’s better

  2. High Lord OmegaNo Gravatar 3 November, 2011 at 9:54 am #

    Needs More Guitar Playing Robots.

    • benNo Gravatar 3 November, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

      you got it!

  3. JulianaNo Gravatar 7 February, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    So, I’m currently studying Elementary and Special Education as an undergraduate. I can understand people getting frustrated and only wanted “contextual Math” to be taught. There’s always at least one kid who asks “Why do I need to know this?” I see Math as encouraging higher order thinking skills. Its more than formulas and rules, it forces a way of thinking about both Math and the world at large. The new Common Core State Standards for Mathematics list 8 Math practices that are suppose to start in Kindergarten and be developed through 12th grade. These practices are specific to Mathematical thinking, but also apply to the “real world.” Of course this is all coming from someone who thinks Math is super cool and who loves awesome robots rocking out.


  1. Episode 111 | Land of the Lost in Space | Science... sort of - 7 November, 2011

    […] for listening! Ben remixed his post from last week, and Juliana has another great exhibit write-up, both of which are available at […]

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