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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Attitudinal Innumeracy

An interesting article just appeared on HomeSchool Math Blog that poses an intriguing question. Why is it perfectly acceptable in our culture to admit to being "bad at math," but people will take the secret of their illiteracy to the grave?

The bulk of the post is a letter from Jim Stone, a math and physics professor of 18 years, who suggest that the ongoing innumeracy problem in this country is not caused by the education system and therefore can not be fixed by the education system. Maybe the problem lies in our cultural acceptance of our math deficiency. Now, of course, I would point out that the education system goes a long way to creating that culture. Although the length of the school day and year are determined by individual states and private districts, the average American student spends an estimated 1206 hours actively receiving instruction each year. That amounts to 1.65 years by the time they graduate high school. That's just class time. If you add in time between classes along with activities before and after school, the average first-grader can expect to spend 4 years on campus before they graduate high school. So students spend 1/3 of their life in school. Maybe that doesn't sound like much, but since they spend another 1/3 sleeping, that time in school amounts to the time spent on all other waking activities combined. So school pretty much is the culture for most kids.

But I've gotten away from Jim's point, which is a good one. Why are people so quick to admit their innumeracy? Just out of college, I got a job with a direct marketing company. We sold products for AT&T, American Express, Coca-Cola, and other Fortune 500 companies. At one point, we were working one the Wal-Mart credit line and I found myself in rural Kentucky signing people up for credit cards. On our first couple of days the conversion rate was pretty low, but on the third day the store manager suggested we would do a lot better if we offered to fill out the applications for people. He was right and the number of applications tripled. He knew what we didn't- that many of his patrons in this impoverished area were illiterate.

These people could have admitted this fact to me and saved themselves a lot of trouble. After all, I was a total stranger that was leaving town at the end of the week. But their pride would not allow it. Imagine all the myriad tricks an active adult has to master to hide the fact that they can't read. I would argue that it probably takes a much smarter person to pretend to be literate than it does to actually read.

The pride that keeps their secret about reading doesn't seem to exist for math. If you were to walk into a room of strangers and ask who was bad at math, plenty of hands would shoot up. Why is this? I don't know the answer. In a recent post about quantum computing, I accidentally stated that 16 cubits represented 10^16 pieces of information rather than 2^16. I didn't realize it until I went to work and I was so ashamed that I rushed to a neighboring on-line gaming center and paid $5 for the 30 seconds of internet time it took me to fix the gaff. I did all of this so that you, my loyal readership, would not think less of me. Why, I wonder, do so many others not share my shame over mathematical errors?

This is another question without easy answers. It may be that Jim is right, that the schools are not necessarily to blame. Acceptance of innumeracy begins at home, and many parents will have their children believing that they are genetically "bad at math" before they ever set foot on the school bus. The worlds of pop music and Hollywood will toss their collective blond hairs in confusion as to why anyone would want to be good at math anyway. But it is the schools that are in the best position to do something about the problem.

It is, after all, their job.

1 comment:

John Dupuis said...

There's an interesting story about the former Montreal Canadiens hockey coach Jacques Demers and how he hid his illiteracy from family, friends and coworkers for many years. Imagine being a senior executive and being illiterate!

Here's a CBC story