Processed Math: Don’t Eat This

March 22, 2013

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?


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