Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Build a Better Mathatude

The longer I live in the adult world of stuff and money, the more I appreciate math and the more opportunities I have to happily wrestle with it. I usually win, but only when I cheat and tag-team with Excel.

Here’s my math homework for the week:

Start with a simple arithmetic problem: You and your partner are deciding what to ship home to the US from China. Nice furniture is inexpensive here and very expensive in the States. Shipping is not cheap though. How much furniture do you have to own to make it worth it?

Add some economics: Decide what is the best way to evaluate the value of the goods. Is it the cost at a Chinese store, its worth in your hearts, the replacement cost in the US, or the substitution cost with the cheapest IKEA/Craigslist goods you can find?

Add some geometry: Shanghai shippers only want to know how many cubic meters you have. You, an American, still think in feet and inches. You have to estimate your furniture and goods interlocked, in boxes and crates, and convert.

Challenge Problem: The cost of shipping space goes up, but not linearly. Determine how to fit the highest value into the best volume for money.

Pop quiz: The Chinese yuan is going to rise soon. You live in China, so you’re paid in yuan, but your salary is fixed in dollars. You can pay for goods in yuan cash or on a dollar-based credit card. You have savings in both currencies. What do you do to avoid losing money?

Enrichment Problem: Interest rates are rising. Do you buy a house sooner, before they get any higher, or later, when they’re high enough to drive down prices? Does it make a difference if you have a 15 or 30-year mortgage, or plan to sell the house within 10 years?

I’m not advocating that we give every child a classroom and focus on the financial problems in Grade 3. Rather, let’s recognize the dual demands of good math education. Kids need to learn enough, well enough, to grapple with complex problems, but they also need to enjoy math enough to try and solve these problems when they actually encounter them.

I like solving these problems. It pays me back very well for my time, and stretches the brain better than a Sudoku. But I think I would be lonely in that opinion.

Far too many adults, including teachers, will happily admit to me that they have “poor math skills.” I don’t believe them. Rather, I think they have a poor math attitude. They’re not unable to determine the best answers for their math dilemmas, they’re unwilling to even try.

My suggestions?

Structurally, we desperately need to find a way to include more finance, statistics and quantitative home economics in the high school curriculum. Then we could teach these topics explicitly. Maybe we need to save calculus for college. Maybe the universities should require these more relevant topics, instead of the futile extra year or two of high-school quality French. But we all know this and the people who make such policy don’t read this blog.

For the individual teacher, here’s my advice:

Don’t reduce the curriculum covered in pursuit of authentic problems. Then people have a great attitude and no skills. Don’t ignore calculators, but don’t let the kids leave thinking that six times eight makes forty-eight because they say so. Don’t pretend you’ll do the pithy word problems at the end of each lesson or the silly “Math in Life” lesson at the end of the unit. They must be skipped in favor of review, remediation, or to accommodate interruptions. But also, don’t do nothing and hope they’ll pick it up elsewhere.

Do use the time after The Tests to go back and apply new skills more deeply. Do reduce the battery of homework to include time for extension problems, and incentivize your kids to actually solve them. Do use “lost days” (sub days, half days, days preceding vacations, etc.) to recapture kids attention with learning-potent breaks in the instructional routine. Do use games, store-bought or home-made, that can force kids to practice this math for you. Do consider family math nights, to engage adults in the learning and perhaps improve the older generations numeracy on the way.

Finally, do let me know how it goes. Next year, I’m back to full-time math teaching. We’ll see if I can practice what I preach.


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