I mentioned in my last newsletter a Gates Foundation survey of teachers and parents. It’s since received a bunch of coverage, especially of two findings:

Parents think math is the subject in school most in need of an upgrade.

US adults think math class needs to become more useful and relevant to students.

It is true that the math students learn is often useless and irrelevant to their adult lives. Many students will conjugate radical expressions, simplify rational polynomials, and use the quadratic equation for the first *and last* time in math class.

In my view, this is not *much* of a problem and nowhere close to the *main* problem with math class.

It isn’t *much* of a problem because uselessness and irrelevance are baked into the project of general education itself,* *where we say, “We don’t know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life (and neither do you if we’re both being honest) so we’re going to teach you lots of knowledge, some of which you’ll keep and some of which you’ll one day replace with knowledge of your kids’ birthdays, the starting lineup of the 2022 Golden State Warriors, etc etc.”

This is, in my view, okay. This is part of the deal with most other school subjects, not just math. Consider the syllabus of an average literature class. Consider many of the detours and alleys of a world history class. Consider the categorization of life into species, genus, and phylum. Consider the word “phylum,” which until today I had not used since ninth grade!

Especially consider all of the trivial pursuits that deeply engage students. The games they play, the media they consume, very little of which has relevance or usefulness to their lives, especially professionally.

The main problem is not that kids find *math class* useless and irrelevant.

**The main problem is that math class finds ****kids**** useless and irrelevant.**

Again, kids like lots of things that have little usefulness and relevance to their lives. They generally do not complain about them in surveys. But those things, as a rule, think *kids* are useful and relevant, where by “kids” I mean their ideas, their latent skills, their ability to make sense of things, their opinions and intuitions, the languages they have and the languages they’re developing, the stuff they know and are.

**Kids are uninterested in math class because they perceive that math class is uninterested in ****them****. **

In the classes kids like more than math, it is common for the class to wonder “what do *you* think here?” before helping the student understand “here is what *experts *think.”

It is common for literature class to wonder, “What do* you* think about what you are reading?” before sharing expert thinking.

It is common for world history class to wonder, “What do *you* think about these events?” before sharing expert analysis.

It is common for biology class to wonder, “How do *you* think these two animals are the same and different?” before sharing expert categorization.

In math class, this curiosity is extremely uncommon. Instead, students are told “here is what experts think” and asked, “do you think like this yet?” In math class we ask students, “If an arithmetic sequence *a + bn* describes the pattern 8, 14, 20, 26, … , what are *a* and *b*?”

One response here is to try to make this kind of math more useful and relevant to a group of students who vary *enormously* in what they find useful and relevant. Another is to ask, with deep and sincere interest, “What do *you* think is going on here? What numbers do *you* think might be coming up? What is a number *you* think we’ll never see? How could *you* predict numbers way out in the distance? Could *you* make your own pattern?”

Kids like learning in classes that like learning about *them*.

I love this! We know students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge that only a teacher can deliver, yet so many of us treat students as such. Listen to students. Respect their experience and knowledge. Let that inform the trajectory of our classes.

Thanks for this great take on math education. I've moved to using Peg Smith's "Five Practices" more over the past years (orchestrating math discussions with student input) and things have gotten SO much better with engagement.

To me, the overall layout of standards and is possibly the biggest obstacle for keeping kids interested in math. Using literacy we an analogy, we teach the basic steps of math the way we teach basic spelling. But then we don't introduce the most important basic form of story telling (algebra) until middle school! By this point this major sector of actual math is a foreign language. Often students haven't had any real introduction to other areas either (eg. geometry & stats). Some of the kids think they're good at it but all they're good at is spelling bee level skills.