It Is The Cult of Efficiency That Has Poisoned Mathematics Education

Sunil Singh
4 min readMar 4, 2024
Mathematician, Logician, Philosopher, Writer, and Educator

This blog was inspired by Michaela Epstein, a wonderful mathematics educator in Melbourne, Australia. She had posted this Russell quote in LinkedIn.

For the last little while, I was incorrect at saying pedagogy was the problem in mathematics education. Seeing that luminaries like Rousseau, Dewey, Whitehead, Russell, and Piaget also formed some of the most progressive pedagogical ideas in the history of education, it was erroneous of me to paint pedagogy with a thick brush of criticism.

It’s not the cult of pedagogy which is the problem. It is the cult of efficiency which is driving almost all of the pedagogy and professional development these days. And since efficiency needs codification, that also has made the grip of efficiency tighter. Everything is a solution to everything. Every step and move has the audit eyes of the efficiency goal. There are no loose ends. There is no mystery. There is no humanness.

I’ll be blunt. It’s strangulating the life right out of mathematics.

Sadly, this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s being going on for over 100 years, and in spite of one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century pointing it out, mathematics education — not one to really ever mine the wisdom of Russell — just became more and more efficient at trying to be efficient.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

Leisure/fun have become non-existent ideas in current mathematics education.

Do you know who uses the word “proficiency”(a cousin of efficiency)? I don’t know. But, I can bet you all the money in the world it is isn’t children. Mathematics stopped being for children when he we devalued leisure, and the energy devoted to it.

What do most of us to as pastimes — watch movies, film, attend sporting events, read books, etc. As great as they might be, it’s all passive. We don’t have energy/desire to create. All that has been used up to be some kind of Clydesdale horse in teaching with efficiency.

Work is valued. Efficiency is valued. Leisure is not.

Efficiency can be a supporting actor in the playful approach to mathematics, but it should not be the lead actor. Who the hell starts off with the goal of being efficient — especially when you don’t even know where you are going with your exploration.

Ah, exploration. Another word that isn’t bedfellow with efficiency.

As some of you know, my fifth book will be cowritten with Amoret Lyon, who is currently eight years-old. She lives in Italy, and I meet with her three times a week, and have been doing so since last September.

Last week, we did this. Hardly the most efficient way. But, efficiency wasn’t the goal here. It was to install negatives into the area model and reinforce the understanding of what happens when we start multiplying with negatives(the full understanding of that happened in a previous lesson).

It was Amoret that wanted to “load up” the original question with negatives.

Today, we mucked around with prime numbers.

She ate her breakfast. We cracked many jokes. She told me a story about how she names all her stuffies and pens. We were, umm, not efficient. We, more importantly Amoret, were in the Stage of Romance.

But, look at where got. Efficiency didn’t bring us here. Play/silliness did.

And yet, if you look around at the world of mathematics PD, everyone is trying to get to the top of the efficiency hill, proclaiming their model of efficiency is the golden ticket, elixir, silver bullet, etc. for what ails mathematics.

No. In some twisted Shakespearean irony, what ails mathematics is this sterilized, homogenized, pre-packaged delivery of mathematics.

That is why I have said — and will continue to say — mathematics is dead. That’s because mathematics requires everyone — including teachers — to be creative, whimsical, and playful.

In the end, our myopic relationship with efficiency has killed the title of this Mark Launer print from 1956. The print is so rare, you can’t even find it anymore. Sadly, that makes poetic sense…

…let them be free and they will change the world.

Freedom is the enemy of efficiency. That’s why we have failed at honoring this promise.