Mathematics’ Zombie Apocalypse: Dead Ideas Living in the Pandemic

Twentieth century ideas about math education are dead.

Twentieth century ideas about math education are also walking around — lead feet, intrusive, and lurching — and scaring the hell out of math educators who are trying to rebuild mathematics from the ashes of the achievement-oriented/performance-driven/individualism culture.

In previous articles, I had referenced Weekend at Bernie’s, but that analogy isn’t working anymore — things aren’t funny anymore. It’s more grisly now.

Worksheets. Assignment after assignment. Unearthly discussions of grading/mark distribution. Ghostly and ghastly emphasis on tracking/streaming, and funneling into fictitious career preparedness.

Let me give you Exhibit A: My son’s updated report card.

It’s Grade 9. His first year of high school. Online learning. Stresses of the pandemic. No socialization. But, you would think this assessment profile — horrid regardless — had to be pre-pandemic. Nope. Zero temperance of the world we live in. Zero deviation from the shit-show, horror-show of inert delivery and reporting of learning mathematics. There is still about a bucket more evaluation pieces coming. All those zeros are incomplete, and are being calculated. His 53 is a measure of compliance. That’s it.

He is exhausted from this transactional crap.

Luckily I told both my kids years ago, that the amount of fucks I give to grades is zero. As such, he is letting this mark of 53 not define anything about himself. It’s more of sad and stinging indictment and commentary of Pink Floyd’s dystopian and nightmarish vison of education — kept alive only by bureaucratic life support.

I wasn’t exaggerating about the mathematical zombies out there was I? When schools prioritize this kind of thing in the throes of the biggest health and existential crisis of our lifetime, then math education is no longer an asset to us. It is a scary liability.

When we put our energies into the cobbling of meaningless assessment profiles — punitively filled with zero’s/late marks, etc. — we are then spending less time in focusing on social-emotional learning and humanizing mathematics.

The beauty and soul of mathematics dies in this industrialized environment.

Before the pandemic, at worst, it was a blight on math education. During the pandemic its presence is disturbing and frightening.

And, I have zero interest in fighting the zombies. I don’t want to even exist in their world of distilling mathematics down to a sole purpose of sorting/measurement. I escaped this mutation years ago. The only thing that can defeat this institutionalized infection is time.

In the meantime, I am wandering in the wilderness, looking for greener pastures, kindred spirits, and general inspiration to create a more hopeful, healthy, and human world of 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