And we barely know why we teach it, too.

We just don’t. Not to and for everyone.

If we didn’t, it wouldn’t be o.k. for so many people to say, “Oh, I hate math.” And yet, you can be in a room full of really smart, successful people, and you can guarantee that a not insignificant subsection of the people there will say that they hate math.

That means we are not doing a good job somewhere. Somehow in the “How,” “Why” and “What,” we are falling down on the job. And because we don’t do it well, math remains the third rail of progressive education. Seymour Papert (source – the Papert scholar, Gary Stager) said that math represents the failure of progressive education because the way we teach math always reintroduces coercion back into education.

And yes, there are those who fall in love with the pure beauty of higher level mathematics. For those of us who would have moments of epiphany when you could just “see” the math unfold in a way that seemed to explain the universe, math class could be amazing. But the fact that there are some of those folks seem to be justifying not changing the fundamental pedagogy and structure of math, thereby ignoring all the kids who never understood or cared about a sine wave.

Conrad Wolfram’s TED Talk about the need to understand the difference between computation and real mathematics is a good start to try to figure out how to do it better.

Some school – like the iSchool in NYC – just punt. They teach the stuff of math using computer software, and then try to use their project-based instructional time to have kids apply the math in their projects. Does it work? It probably beats sitting and listening to a math teacher write and explain the math on the board.

But it begs a fundamental question for me – why do we just teach math? Problem sets and the occasional poorly worded word problem seems just wrong to me when mathematical thinking is problem-finding and problem-solving of the highest order. Of all the subjects that seem to have been most damaged by siloing and a lack of true interdisciplinarity, math seems to suffer the most.

After all, math is the language of the physical world. There’s more real math in the arc of a frisbee in flight than in all the word problems in a textbook.

Math is the language of probability. Any poker player who has to consider the pot odds to know if they are making a good bet is doing applied mathematics.

Math is problem-finding and problem-solving as anyone who has ever tried to figure out why they have no money at the end of the month can tell you.

And let’s not forget that the same mathematical problem solving algorithms are involving in every computer programming challenge we could possibly undertake.

What if we completely rethought the way we taught math so that everything was structured around using math to seek out and solve problems? What mathematical concepts would become paramount? What pedagogies would come to the forefront? And how much could we finally get so many people to be willing to say that they simply “hate math?”

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