Free Markets, Free People

Years of Math

From an email.

Why? Because I think it is funny. And yes, I understand that we are still capable of and do teach math well.

But as I chuckled about it, this bit of humor is more about our priorities and some cultural issues than math.

1959-2009 (in the USA )

Last week I purchased a burger at Burger King for $1.58. The counter girl took my $ 2 and I was digging for my change when I pulled 8 cents from my pocket and gave it to her. She stood there, holding the nickel and 3 pennies, while looking at the screen on her register. I sensed her discomfort and tried to tell her to just give me two quarters , but she hailed the manager for help. While he tried to explain the transaction to her, she stood there and cried. Why do I tell you this? Because of the evolution in teaching math since the 1950s:

1. Teaching Math In 1950s

A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price. What is his profit ?

2. Teaching Math In 1960s

A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price, or $80. What is his profit?

3. Teaching Math In 1970s

A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80. Did he make a profit? 

4. Teaching Math In 1980s

A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80 and his profit is $20. Your assignment: Underline the number 20.

5. Teaching Math In 1990s

A logger cuts down a beautiful forest because he is selfish and inconsiderate and cares nothing for the habitat of animals or the preservation of our woodlands. He does this so he can make a profit of $20.  What do you think of this way of making a living? Topic for class participation after answering the question: How did the birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down their homes? (There are no wrong answers, and if you feel like crying, it’s ok.)

6. Teaching Math In 2009

Un hachero vende una carretada de maderapara $100. El costo de la producciones es $80. Cuanto dinero ha hecho?


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19 Responses to Years of Math

  • So true that you want to cry :)

    I do this also.   I arrange my payments so that I do not get pennies back.  It drives the cashiers to distraction but then I tell them to ring it in so that the machine will do the math for them

  • The argument your correspondent puts together is valid and worthy of further discussion.  But in my view it’s not so much the issue of math as it is of  logic.  Alas, there are many among us who lack the ability to think logically.  With us, indeed we see so much of the support for the democratic presidential ticket this last time around; “I don’t have to worry about my rent anymore Mr. Obama will take care of all of that nonsense” .

    It’s not a matter of the girl behind Burger King counter being stupid. I find myself forced to be sympathetic to our problem.   It’s a matter of her not having been educated correctly that makes her so singularly unqualified for any task , including making change.  Or, for that matter, voting for it. 

    She stands as a vivid example in my estimation of why government should be forced out of the education business for once and all. 

  • When I was teaching calculus as a graduate assistant in the early 1980s, I saw several students who thought they were quite well prepared to take the course based on their high school grades, but in fact the first test indicated that they were ignorant of the most basic principles of algebra.

    Apparently most of them had been eased through the system, parroting answers they really didn’t understand. They were all legimately puzzled after they failed that first test. After all, they had done what their teachers asked, and no one ever forced them to confront the necessity to actually learn and understand.

    It’s tragic. And I don’t have a clue what to do about it.

    But I do know one thing. As long as people smart enough to teach math have far better opportunities in other areas than education, things are not going to get better. The collectivists in the education industry can’t grasp the simple law of supply and demand, and the implication that math and science teachers need to make a lot more money than psychology teachers.

    • Are you sure they didn’t fail because YOU were a bad teacher? That’s what I’m constantly told by people on this blog who have no experience in actually teaching students (and I don’t really count TAs as teachers since they don’t teach so much as they just tell you how to do something based on their own understanding).

      In other words, why do you get to blame others for the failure in your classroom?

      • Are you sure they didn’t fail because YOU were a bad teacher?

        Heh. Well… that’s something I suppose no one can really judge about themselves, can they? I won some awards for teaching, but that doesn’t really prove anything. I really enjoyed it though.

        I’m certainly willing to grant that math is a subject that often suffers from bad teachers. On one end, you’ve got teachers who don’t really understand what they’re teaching – middle school and high school math teachers often fall into that category. On the other end, you’ve got professors who may be brilliant mathematicians, but can’t see math through the eyes of someone not as smart as they are, so they don’t know how to explain it.

        But, as Heinlein said, everything of importance is based on math, so I wish we did better at educating our citizens about it.

      • I’ll give Billy the benefit of the doubt here, based on my own experience. The problem with government-taught math and science through high school is that there’s no development of creative thinking to problem solving. Students are taught equations and formulas, and given an A for regurgitation.

        By the time I got to college, I was smart enough that I could have applied myself and learned, but I thought high school study habits could carry me through: study the night before, memorize equations, and ace the exams, no sweat.  Oh man, what a painful realization that I’d have to think about what equations meant, and how to work them together.

        My first quarter of college physics, mainly Newtonian physics, was to weed out those who weren’t serious majors in sciences and engineering. You wanted to avoid this class at all costs if you were, say, a humanities major who needed a science credit. Example of a question on the final, as I remember it: given a cannon on a ledge h meters high and firing a projectile at v m/s, and a car d meters horizontally from the cannon traveling at m/s, at what angle d does the cannon have to fire so that it hits the car?

        The next quarter was Electricity & Magnetism, all calculus-based. It’s said that after these first two, only 10% of students continued on to the final end of first year physics. Tough program, sure, but it made damn sure you knew what you were doing. You can’t design a bridge just by plugging numbers into one formula, and it takes a special talent to think so creatively.

    • When I was a chemistry grad student back in the ’90s, I gave my sections a little “test” at the beginning of the semester just to see what I was up against, i.e. how defficient their high school algebra and chemistry educations were.  Never did I dream that some of them couldn’t do basic arithmetic EVEN WITH A CALCULATOR.  It was sad and funny at the same time: they had these huge graphing calculators with about a thousand buttons on them.  They’d bang the keys, all the while giving me baleful looks, then hesitantly scratch something on paper, knowing that it wasn’t even close to being right but unable to do better.


      But I look at it as job security: no matter how lazy and inefficient at my job I may be, I’m still miles ahead of the competition coming out of the schools these days.

      Unless they are Indian or Asian…

  • After China pays for the “stimulus”

    日志记录器为$100出售货车木料。 他的生产成本是$80。 他是否获得了利润?

  • Weird.  A post critical of American education and it hasn’t popped up on the GoogleReader for a teacher’s union rep, sending pissed off posters to flame?
    Alright, I’ll fill the void:



  • Teaching Math in 2010:

    A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80 and his profit is $20. How much (if any) does he  after Obama/Reid/Pelosi is through with him?

  • This same thing happens in supposedly math mighty Taiwan, but to a lesser extent. They usually know just to key it into the register and let it do the thinking.

    I am not sure how strong the cultural urge to avoid change is here though.

  • Teaching Math in 2011:

    You live in Alphabet City in lower Manhattan and smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. There are 365 days in a year. Go to the cigarette tax calculator website and figure out how much you save in one year if you buy your cigarettes from Eddie on 6th Street and Avenue B who bootlegs them up from North Carolina in his van every week.

    For extra credit: calculate your additional savings for the year because Eddie likes you and is doin’ it with your sister and throws you six free cartons.

  • You got a burger for $1.58?!

  • I know you guys are technologically-impaired, but the pocket calculator has been around for quite a while.  I bet you still take notes on pen & paper ;^).

  • Once at a restaurant I got to the register with my order, only to find that the register was not working and the girl behind the counter (who *had* a calculator, btw) was leaving sales tax off everyone’s orders because she didn’t know how to calculate sales tax.  I happened to know the sales tax for our city so I showed her how to do it.  She couldn’t believe it was that easy and thanked me like I’d just saved her baby from drowning.  Actually I’d probably only saved her job.

    Oh, and on the topic of “how do you know you’re a good math teacher”?  By the number of people who come up to you after lecture [or a tutoring session] and say “Wow, I didn’t know it could be that easy [or fun].  They made it look so hard when I took this class last time.”  If you’re getting at least one of those a week, you’re a damn good math teacher.

  • “How did the birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down their homes? (There are no wrong answers, and if you feel like crying, it’s ok.)”

    Unless you said that the birds and squirrels didn’t feel bad, then you did get the wrong answer and got a check minus.