Processed Math: Don’t Eat This

There has been considerable backlash against processed food products in the last few years, and for good reason. A slew of health problems implicate what we eat, and processed food products are more product than they are food. As industry spread through the last century and we began to see its uses multiply, the convenience made possible by industrially processing food was seductive. We thought we could improve our lives with convenience, but really we just gave ourselves heart disease and diabetes. Humans should eat food. Real food. ‘Nuff said.

Likewise, in an effort to make math easier to teach, easier to grade, and easier to standardize, we have essentially run it through industrial-scale refining, removing much of what math really is, and leaving behind a quivering, viscous math product. Math, as it is currently taught in K-12 education, is like highly processed food. And much of the education industry is happily at work on the factory line, boxing the processed math product into consumable, digestible, tidy little packages.

When a mathematician tells people what she does, the most common response is “I hate math” or “I suck at math.” People think they hate math, but what they don’t realize is they’ve had very little contact with Real Math. Rather, they’ve been on a carefully controlled diet of processed math, hardly even a shadow of its former self.

Processed math is contrived (i.e. tidy story problems that look nothing like their real-world counterparts). Processed math is meaningless (i.e. the reasons behind the rules and processes seem arbitrary and everything is a memorization game). Processed math is unmotivated (cue the classic student response to a problem: “What do they want me to do here?). Processed math is uninspiring. Seriously, what’s to love here? No wonder math has such a bad reputation.

Real math, on the other hand is juicy, messy, rich, and vibrant. It compels our creative attention. It allows for dynamic interplay between problem solvers and the problem itself. We can’t help but get sucked in. We can’t help but take ownership of the work. Math needs a revolution like food had a revolution, and every good revolution needs a catchy slogan (Michael Pollan’s quips come to mind). So here’s a start, in three words: Do Real Math.
Or in five words: Real Math for Real People. Word.

Other ideas?


Comments 5

  1. Anusha Sekar

    I think we sometimes overthink the actual content that is being taught in school. IMHO (and I could be wrong here), the content itself is great and in the hands of a good teacher, can create amazing love for math.
    Continuing the food analogy, a cook at home can go all fancy and use only fresh, locally sourced ingredients, and make an amazing dish, but I can make amazing dishes out of frozen veggies as well. Its all in how I combine the ingredients and the time I take to make it something worthwhile and this is something I have had to learn how to do..it did not come naturally…same thing with teachers.

    We should spend a lot more time/money training and educating teachers and instilling a love of math in them instead of constantly tweaking the curriculum, which is what most school districts seem to be doing.

    That said, I think the vast majority of my math teachers were not really ideal, I still love math…so maybe there is another ingredient here as well.

  2. Kadie

    Constant tweaking of the curriculum cost much more than if we were to teach REAL MATH. This new tweak Common Core (ie Fuzzy Math) will add to the hatred of Math and once again derail another generation. (I’m already seeing it)
    I loved Math. I was taught by a mathematician. I was also taught by a father that was a teacher and understood real math.
    We do need a math revolution!!!

  3. Bill Thayer

    The web pages listed above and several other of my urls are full of math projects that grew out of stuff that my students and I did or stuff that added to the class material. 48 years of working with students is how much I liked them and the subject! And around town (Colorado) I still will get with people that want to know more math or/and some areas of science for whatever reason. LOVE PEOPLE THINKING

  4. Mark Quin

    I’m not a maths teacher and, as revealed by the extra ‘s’ at the end of math, I’m not a North American either. So, I should be careful not to comment too stridently.
    I am a teacher, however, in the UK – and our two jurisdictions may not be too dissimilar. My guess is this: maths has become dull, safe, processed because our society has decided it must be for all. There is a lowest common denominator problem here (see, I do know something about sums!) Just as our supermarkets have decided that they can reach the widest possible market with their basic range, sugar- and salt-stuffed food, so governments hoping to raise everyone’s levels of functional numeracy have created curricula that feed everyone but satisfy few.
    You maths guys have a dilemma here. Do you want the jobs and status that compulsory maths brings you? If so, you may have to put up with the processed diet. If, however, you are prepared to admit that maths may not be for everyone, you can start offering some choicer titbits.

  5. Pingback: Math Teachers at Play #62 | Let's Play Math!

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