Why Are We So Bad at Teaching Math?

Today’s New York Times had an interesting op-ed by Andrew Hacker arguing that we should abandon algebra from our high school and college core curricula. This is not a great idea. (See John Patty’s response if you require convincing.) That said, one reason Hacker wants to drop algebra is because we as Americans suck at it. Fair enough. But why are we so horrible?

I think our math education system is to blame. Confession: I got B’s and C’s in my high school math classes. After scoring consecutive C’s in pre-calculus in sophomore year of high school, I abandoned math entirely.

Think about how ridiculous that is. The author of the world’s most popular game theory textbook (a full year at number one!) could barely get through high school math classes.

In retrospect, I sucked because I was unmotivated. I failed to see how math remotely related to the things I was interested in, and so I put in the bare-minimum amount of effort. In my defense, no one ever bothered to tell me why I should care. Instead, I just got logarithmic functions and tangent lines thrown at me for the sake of throwing them at me.

American may be bad at math, but I wonder how much of it is a lack of effort. When I became a senior in college, some of my political science professors sat me down and told me it was time to learn calculus. (The terror!) I got straight A’s in the three quarter sequence. I don’t think I grew particularly smarter over the five years math was absent from my life. Rather, taking advanced political science courses convinced me that math is necessary to understand the world, which in turn gave me the motivation to put in the hours to learn calculus.

Ultimately, I blame the system. High school math teachers are overwhelmingly former college math majors. For whatever reason, these people find math inherently interesting, and they teach like this is normal.

It’s not. Most of us need a reason to care. We should not expect teenagers to naturally gravitate to seemingly unrelateable subjects.

I wrote my game theory textbook accordingly. Most game theory courses begin with some abstract explanation of expected utility theory. BOR-RING. I really do not care about expected utility. Neither should you. Strategically interdependent situations are actually interesting. Expected utility theory is only important insofar as the study of strategically interdependent behavior requires it. Thus, I start with actual games and sweat the small stuff later. I think that is one of the reasons the textbook has found an audience outside of people taking game theory courses.

Surely high school math classes can find a similar way to make math relatable to teenagers.

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