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How to make math tip?

I just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. (I know, I’m over a decade late to the party. I’m a slow reader.) It was mostly pleasure reading, but towards the end I realized that what the book is about is not just how fads or epidemics spread, or how to create a best-selling product; it’s about how culture changes, and Gladwell’s hypothesis is essentially that certain elements—who’s proselyting the change, how compelling the change is, and the context the change occurs in—are the critical factors. Hush puppies tipped. Smoking tipped. Even suicide tipped in Micronesia (really!). So what would it take to make math tip?

In a way, that’s been our goal all along, which is why, in our own conversations, we haven’t restricted ourselves to assuming that we’ll only be working in education. The real goal is to change the culture around mathematics. Here’s the good news: I think it’s been happening for while anyway. The first mainstream breakthrough I remember was Good Will Hunting, and since then we’ve had A Beautiful Mind, Proof, Numbers, The Big Bang Theory, and more. When Steve Strogatz wrote pieces for the New York Times, they received hundreds of comments. Scientists are cooler than they’ve been in my lifetime. Is it happening? Is math tipping?

Here’s the counterpoint: when they talk about anything remotely mathematical on TV or radio, they still warn viewers or listeners not to run away from the media source. It’s still socially acceptable to describe yourself as a mathematical ignoramus. Bottom line: many people don’t know math, and are terrified by it. I don’t know how many, but I’d guess it’s a solid majority of the country.

So that’s our question: what can we do to tip our culture toward the pro-math direction, where it’s expected that you will learn math, where it’s understood that you don’t have to be frightened of it it, and where most of us will possess the facility to use it when we need it (and to know when we need it)? Our evolution at Math for Love has been: working with individual students; working with small groups of students; working with classes of students; working with teachers. That’s been evolution in the right direction: you help a group of students, that’s fine, but getting teachers excited about math and feeling that they own their mathematical knowledge and curriculum… that’s something else. It’s like the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching a man to fish (or better: teaching a math to fish and teaching a man to teach everyone in his village to fish).

Even though working with teachers gives us a broader reach and a better chance of making math tip, since they affect so many students, and can lead to a transformation of school culture, my gut tells me that there is some greater innovation, some leverage point we haven’t yet put our hands on. The hard thing about math is that it isn’t enough to see or hear it: you have to do it to feel what it feels like. I’ve always been impressed by my dad’s book because it doesn’t just tell you about the kinds of teaching he’s talking about: it actually gives you the experience of them. The closest thing I’ve seen to this in math is Paul Lockhart’s Mathematician’s Lament, but I don’t see that hitting the mainstream. What needs to happen? Do the cool kids need to start trying to find a simple proof of the 4 Color Theorem? Do we need a bad boy/girl mathematician (or scientist… a rising tide raises all ships) to cool it up in the media like Feynmann did for a while? (It’s hardly conceivable, even though the Onion made the connection.)

I’d love to end with a solution to this problem, but all I’ve got for a moment in the question: what needs to happen for people in our culture to think that knowing math is standard and being good at it is cool?

Comments 4

  1. Kalid

    Hi Dan, great question. Something I’ve thought about a lot. My opinion: We need to improve the first-derivative of math learning.

    Right now we’re concerned with the constant term, i.e. how much does a student know at graduation?

    But we aren’t concerned with their “math velocity”, i.e. how much are they learning on their own.

    I think the fix is to have students graduate who are actually interested in exploring math, and their knowledge at graduation is less important. I’d rather have kids graduating high school who *love* algebra vs. know calculus and hate it. Because the kids who love algebra will probably explore math on their own, and turn the tide against math-phobia.

    We can measure the first derivative by looking at the percentage of students who hate math vs. hate other subjects. It should be about the same [right now, math is probably in the lead in the most-hated category].

    My 2c anyway! :)

  2. Laura

    Teach math starting in elementary school as a tool for finding/drawing/creating things, the way we teach kids to read so they can read and write stories.

  3. Gregory Taylor

    I might say we have to tip it away from being bad first. (Or rather, tip it away from ‘not knowing math’ being an acceptable thing.) I admit to not having read the book, but regarding “Smoking tipped” – from what I know, it used to be cool (maybe still is in some circles!) then there were suspicions, then it was kind of frowned on, before we finally got to passing laws to keep people from doing it in particular places.

    If math is being seen as “uncool”, “unnecessary” or “terrifying” (by some), I think we need to ramp people up to grudging acceptance or appreciation before we can take it the rest of the way, to standard and cool. To quote science fiction, Picard’s line from the TNG episode ‘Ethics’ comes to mind:
    “You want him to go from contemplating suicide to accepting his condition and living with the disability, but it’s too far. The road between covers a lifetime of values, beliefs. He can’t do it, Beverly. But perhaps he can come part of the way.”

    When I hear a student say they hate math, or aren’t good at it, my usual response is on the lines of “Have you tried ambivalence? I’m not saying love it, but don’t hate it, and see where that takes you.” (Note I’m also not saying that love isn’t better, but at least those who aren’t going there, I don’t want them to go the other way.) Now, is enthusiasm and anecdotal evidence enough to gain this grudging appreciation? I don’t know, but it’s probably a step in the right direction.

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