Events, IMP, Math, STEM News & Views

# Why Don’t We Teach Practical Math? A Science Friday Panel Discussion

This was, by far, one of the best things that came across our news feed this week.

With STEM professional development (#STEMpd) well underway across the country, it’s the perfect time for educators and parents to review how effective we’ve been at introducing and teaching STEM subjects to students. Are students embracing and *living* STEM. How can we improve our efforts and procedures for the coming school year to help all students? Self-improvement usually starts with asking ourselves the most difficult questions.

### Does math matter?

The question seems overly simplistic, but it’s a question that almost every student grudgingly asks their teachers and parents. We should not only discuss this question in a public form, but we should revisit the question often. Of course, most adults would say math matters, a lot. But are we *teaching* math in a way that underscores its relevance, or undermines it? If you asked the average K-12 student this question, what would their answer be?

Luckily for us, the phenomenal team at Science Friday (@scifri) tackled this question, and some of the most negative perceptions about math, at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week. Ira Flatow (Science Friday host and executive producer, @iraflatow) attempted to slay the math-relevancy beast with an all-star panel of math thought-leaders including:

- Jo Boaler (Professor, mathematics education, Stanford University, Co-founder, YouCubed.org, author,
*What’s Math Got To Do With It?*, @JoBoaler) - Steven Strogatz (Professor, mathematics, Cornell University, author,
*The Joy of X*, @stevenstrogatz) - Jordan Ellenberg (John D. MacArthur Professor of Mathematics University of Wisconsin, author,
*How Not to Be Wrong*, @JSEllenberg)

The 35-minute discussion (recorded by Science Friday for its weekly podcast) offered thought-provoking ideas, insights into the latest math research, eyebrow-raising facts about the origins of math learning and, of course, math problems to solve. Flatow expertly moderated the discussion by cutting through the fluff and immediately getting to the heart of the matter — oftentimes unabashedly expressing his own personal frustrations with math as a student in school:

“Why don’t we teach practical math?!” — Ira Flatow

The panel delved into the question at length with Jo Boaler (who is a self-professed fan of IMP inquiry-based math), summing up the problem:

“Proper math education should both the practicality and the poetry. We can use math to solve practical problems, and great teachers do this. But what kids suffer from is publishers’ textbook problems. They are non-sensical, ridiculous problems. Kids know when they step into math class that they are stepping into “math land” where common sense is no longer needed. We actually have a lot of evidence of what works in mathematical teaching and it’s not what we see in most classroom. There’s a HUGE gap between what we know works and what we see normally. ” — Jo Boaler

Jordan Ellenberg reminded us of the relevance of math historically:

“We lose sight of the fact that math is about very real problems and every piece of formalism you see, from a trigonometric to an algebraic rule, was invented by people in the past who had a problem to solve and their life was better after they had the mathematical formalism than before.” — Jordan Ellenberg

Are we teaching math the wrong way? According to the panelists and recent research, yes, we most certainly are. The panelists all agreed on a few key points: (1) the way math is taught today is stifling, formulaic and counter-productive to real learning, (2) math learning needs to be taught using real-life problems in an inquiry-based way to help students grasp concepts and relevancy, and (3) we are instilling fear and failure in children by telling them that they don’t have an aptitude for math (this is especially true for girls).

So, where do we go from here? This is the most compelling part of the discussion. Everyone from the panelists, to Ira Flatow, to the audience and even people participating on the tweetchat chimed in. In addition to the podcast recording of the panel discussion above, Science Friday hosted a live tweetchat in conjunction with the panel discussion with all three panelists participating. Listen to the podcast of the panel (above), read through the STORIFY tweetchat recap at the end of this post, and take a look at a few of the tweets from panelists that we’ve highlighted (below).

And do take a stab at solving the fun math problems presented by Ira Flatow and the panelists which had everyone, including the audience, participating. Online, math teacher Mike Lawler did YouTube videos of himself and his kids solving the math problems (you can watch them **here)**. Maybe the next panel should be, “Is Math Fun?” If this panel is any indication, the answer is YES!

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