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

Another in our series of Ben’s ramblings 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 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, 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!


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.


2 Responses to Ben’s Math Education Response in Terms of Carts & Horses

  1. benNo Gravatar 3 November, 2011 at 6:20 am #

    more like an electric thunder missile of truth and efficiency.


  1. Episode 110 | Back to School | Science... sort of - 2 November, 2011

    […] in the NY Times about how we teach math in the US and wants to know what the Paleopals think. Ben’s answer is available on the blog. And finally, Steve wants to know if the Paleopals are worried about over-specialization in […]

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