I’m getting the sense that math is being set up as the fall guy. The purported barrier between the upper 15% of us (See Average is Over) and the rest of us is mathematics. The idea is that competency in the modern world requires expertise with technology and data – the ability to use and create with computers in whatever form (desktops, smartphones, remote controls, robots, etc) and to ability to gain insight from data. This is seen as all math. Algorithms rule the world. Computers run algorithms. Algorithms are math.
Let’s accept this premise even though computers are better thought of as logic machines which spend a lot of time looking up information formatted in data tables. In fact the distinguishing characteristic of technological competency is not the ability to do math, calculating and pushing symbols around on a piece of paper (algebra and calculus) but the ability to use mathematical models be they formulas, spreadsheets, simulations, etc.
So where does this leave us math teachers? Do we keep teaching the same old things hoping that the occasional latent fifteen percenter in our class will not only learn the math well but be lucky enough to navigate his/her way past all the other significant hurdles to success?
No. Our job is more important than that. We are teaching citizens. They can already vote for goodness sake. Let’s decide what effective citizens really need to know and teach that – systems theory, Bayesian statistics, logic, algebraic formulas, decision theory, elementary programming and web design, network analysis, encryption, financial math… In the future, actually right now, algebra and calculus calculations will be done with handheld calculators or online computer algebra systems. Let’s use these tools to explore the questions that citizens should be able to answer or at least understand. Our graduate should know the basic principles behind the so-call impenetrable algorithms otherwise math courses will seem increasingly irrelevant to the majority of people who, despite Average is Over‘s reported vision, will be doing the much of the fulfilling and important work needed for a happy, functioning society.