Math Wars: The Rise of Mathematics

I wrote this article almost two years ago. I have updated it a little. But, while our world has changed dramatically, media and politicians are in a state of rigor mortis regarding mathematics.

And over this long weekend, I discovered my own daughter is suffering from anxiety/depression, which she attributes almost exclusively to school and the pressure to perform, get good marks, be someone that she is not. Which means her inner self gets neglected and fades into the ether. My resolve for fighting the institutions that have contributed directly and indirectly to her mental health issues just got ramped up. It made sense to share this again with some updates.

We as educators have now gone through a pandemic and are coming out the other side. Well, individual humans in growing numbers are. Institutions, not too much. Steering large freighter ships around suddenly appearing turns is an almost impossible ask. That’s why they just keep drifting, oblivious to tributaries that would take them to fresh and relevant waters. There is a stagnant pool of ideas that awaits their rust. That will be their fate. Bank on it.

Mathematics will not be on that ship. Well, maybe some skeletal form of it.

There has been quite the cliched battle in math education between something called “Traditionalists” vs. “Reformists” for a few generations now. But, that battle itself is part of a larger narrative of politics and media failing to understand what mathematics actually is and what it is for.

Failing is being polite. They have been grossly negligent in writing anything that doesn’t spin off of falling test scores and/or urgent need to prepare kids for the “real world”.

Almost every article in the media about mathematics has talked about this battle or surfed some decline in test scores or new math — thereby nullifying their validity to speak about mathematics with any relevance. It’s like my high school friends who keep talking about how great Zeppelin was. They are no longer around, and haven’t made new music in over 40 years. Not even sure if they should be used as a yardstick(by the way, I love Zeppelin!).

While the article below was written by two strong academic people, it lamely begins with citing falling test scores. Sorry. I’m done. I am moving on to the comics section at this point.

THERE. IS. NO. SUCH. THING. AS. DISCOVERY. MATH.

And then, in my own Province of Ontario, the collective wisdom of our government now wants to test elementary teachers on their math knowledge, and ensure they get a mark of 70%. Why 70%? Why not 67? 72? Choosing a cliched benchmark rooted in the most prostituted number in society — 10 — only makes the whole initiative even more laughable.

Here is an excerpt from a recent article about testing teachers. Try to find all the stereotypical and archaic notions about mathematics centered around the performance and job culture.

There you have it. Two institutions, clinging to their own power, chiming in about mathematics with their chests out, but with only enough understanding of math’s scope, purpose, and 21st century vision to count change, calculate sales tax, and purchase lumber.

The irony of government wanting students to be successful in mathematics is a bit of lark — considering the same government offers the most duplicitous lottery games that have horrific and undetectable negative expectations in all their carny offerings. You want people to be “prepared”? Teach students about statistics, probability, utility, game theory, and mathematical expectation — as early as possible. Not this inert bullshit that is tantamount to having the sharpness of butter knives and safety scissors…

Folks, the real battle, the important battle, has always been the whole realm of mathematics — made up of actual classroom teachers, math educators, and mathematicians — against politics and media. And politics and media have always been cozy with the back-to-basics folks because they both enjoy sensationalist headlines of the mathematical sky falling.

In 2019, the gulf between the toothless call for treating mathematics like some lifeless entity to be mined for memorization of facts and its quick recall and its true bounty of beauty, poetry, magic, and imagination is one that has become unbridgeable.

The dark side of mathematics is media and politics, and those that lie in bed with them to entertain fear-mongering or the most antiquated ideas from the flea market of 20th century ideology.

The good news is that in this true math wars, the good side is armed with mathematics, knowledge of pedagogy, and belief for a higher purpose of mathematics besides being faceless widgets in a Dystopian society that is part Animal Farm and part Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Just look at how real mathematicians and math educators are talking about mathematics.

Keith Devlin, Stanford University

And, if there is one person that can best represent “Rey” in this generation of math educators fighting against the back-to-basics — to be now known as the forward-to-obsolescence movement— it surely must be Jo Boaler and other female math educators, who fight a non-stop battle to try and humanize mathematics.

Here is a poem she wrote that addresses the toxic homework culture that is linked to the back-to-basics movement.

Jo Boaler, Aug 30, 2019

Then there is Francis Su, whose long-awaited book, Mathematics is for Flourishing, about the highest — and most universally accessible — purpose for learning mathematics, was released last year.

Francis Su got his math degree at Harvard. Media and politics received their math knowledge from a gumball machine in a soon-to-be-closing bowling alley. Too harsh there? Nah. David Staples is a journalist in Edmonton. He is a hockey writer. But, he thinks he can trade in sticks and pucks for cutting edge math commentary. “Math results show we…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…”

And finally, there is James Tanton, who is leading the most ambitious idea — to give uplifting and joyful mathematics to the whole world!

Yeah. I was snarky in this article. Someone has to be. I am bloody tired of mathematics being pushed around and picked at by self-serving vultures as some carcass for political or publication gain. People, willfully or not, champion the weakest ideas of math to strengthen their own position of prominence. I wish there was a fable that accurately portrayed this hollow vision.

How To Parade Falling Test Scores

Take your best shots now, journalists, politicians, and long division advocates. This is the Age of Mathematics. It is rising. It’s force and illumination has a strength that you have ignored and minimized for too long, callously trying to shade its humanness and historic color into obscurity.

You won many, many battles. You might win a few more.

But, the last one. Mathematics will win. And, your impostor accounts of math will cease to exist. Mathematics. She’s not someone you should have messed with. She’s going to come hard and she is going to come heavy.

Brace yourselves. Holding up a packet of worksheets about times tables with declining test scores is akin to armor that is made up leather rags. That is not going to fare well against the light saber — mathematics.

Author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics and Co-Author of Math Recess: Playful Learning in the Age of Disruption. Speaker. Amplify and Mathigon

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store