How to make math tip?

August 27, 2012

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?

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