Monday, April 2, 2012

Lower Than Higher Math

Lower Than Higher Math

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
Albert Einstein

Math class.  Fond memories?
The valuable lessons that could have been learned in grade school math were squandered.  Teachers, some of whose abilities were better suited to selling door knobs, and textbooks that seemed entirely irrelevant, made for a miserable experience. 
The outcome was predictable.  Didn’t learn much.
That was then.  Now, some of that math would be handy in real life.  Time lost on the job site due to math inability can become frustrating and costly.
“Hey Jim, how much rock do we need to bring in?”  Here’s a math question disguised in an on-the-job conversation.  Jim needs to bring a hole up to grade with base rock.  Using a tape measure and lot level, Jim and co-worker see an 8 ft. by 12 ft area that needs to be raised 6 inches.
The fellow at the rock plant won’t appreciate hearing that you need 8 by 12 by 6 worth of rock.  After all, he had the same math teacher that you did.  He only wants to know how many cubic yards of what material.  Period.
Uh oh.  I know, I’ll buy one of those construction calculators.  But what buttons do I push?  Tick tick tick.  There goes some profit.
How did it come to be that you missed this life lesson?  Marginal math literacy is a common shortcoming.  You are not alone.
Think back to grade school.  Was it that untalented teacher who droned on about the water cycle, Christopher Columbus, or fractions?  It all sounded the same.
Or there was an important math fundamental that you just didn’t quite understand.  Perhaps you were a little sick, or distracted, or bored.  You unknowingly missed something crucial and never quite recovered from that moment.    This may have happened in fourth grade.
All through the next many years of school, you got by in math class.  After all, you never were going to actually need this stuff.   Now, how much rock does that hole require?
Let’s see, 8 feet times 12 feet times 6 inches.  That’s 8x12x6, punch into calculator, that’s 576.  That hole isn’t big enough to be 576 cu yards or cubic feet.  I know I can do this.
“Okay class, turn to page 123.  Jim what’s the answer to number 6?” 
Fourth grade.  Miss Tedium.  Yucko.  Who needs number six or this class?  It’s for jerks and brainiacs like Arthur Cerebral over there who seems to know all of the answers.  Probably he gets his head stuck in doorways.  I wish someone could really explain this to me.
            “We need to fill this hole.  Let’s start again.”  Taking the time to confirm your measurements, you are confident that the rock needed is 8 ft x 12 ft x 6 inches deep.  Fortunately, there is one fellow in the crew who can answer this.  More in a hurry than embarrassed, you ask for help.  Your coworker solves the problem in a few moments.  You can see that there is no magic here.  Damn.
“No Jim, that’s not quite right.  Does anyone else know the answer to number 6?”  Darn.  And so it goes.  Lost and frustrated in fourth grade through to the present.
For a moment, forget about the math class memories; Miss Tedium, Arthur Cerebral, number 6.  Would your life be easier, less stressful, or more lucrative if you were adept with math?  For many of us, the answer is, yes.
The benefits of math competence on the job should be clear; the ability to solve the question at hand, with confidence, and in an efficient time.  This translates to greater work status and more production in a given day.

Alan Cook
Copyright ©2010
Alan Cook is a carpenter, cabinet maker, and solar installer who has seen, first-hand, the problems with math deficiency in the trades. He authored A Trip to the Number Yard: A Fun and Easy Guide to the Math You Need for Construction to help trades people become more proficient in math and thereby do better in their jobs.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Math Failure; The Missing Tool

“A lie can be halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”  Mark Twain

Math Failure;  The Missing Tool

Carpenters put on their pouch carrying a measuring tape, square, chalk line, chisel, hammer, and more.  All of these are now ready to use.  Sometimes the most needed tool is math.
Concrete has to be ordered in cubic yards.  Roofing is measured by the square.  Finished flooring is bought by the lineal foot, square foot, or square yard.  All of the bills are paid with dollars and cents.
Missing math skills are not only seen in construction.  Large and small businesses across the country find it difficult to fill positions with qualified people.  This, in spite of 9% unemployment.
Why isn’t the tool of math at the ready?  The simple reason is that math, as it is currently taught, seems irrelevant to large numbers of kids.  They are not interested and, therefore, not motivated to learn. 
Students are bad at math.  Approximately one out of every two high school graduates isn’t proficient in grade-level math.  The United States ranks among the lower one third when considering international math testing.  This sounds like an epidemic.
Across the United States, standardized math test scores are generally disappointing, and in too many cases, alarming.  But this has been true a long time.  The product of this situation is a marginally competent student population and equally poorly trained adults.  This inertia needs to be displaced.
School administrations and curriculum writers debate like vipers.  Arguments over Traditional vs. Reform vs. New math curricula are waged.  This, too, has gone on for years.
Continual attempts are made to systematize math education.  These attempts make the assumption that all teachers should, and are able to, teach in a generic fashion.  Also assumed is that all students will learn exactly what is taught at the necessary pace using a rigid format.
With federal and state curricula becoming more structured and nearly impossible in their demands, much of teachers’ creativity will be lost.  This breeds teacher overwhelm and apathy.  Students are bored.  Bored students don’t learn.  Remember those test scores?
Longer school days and a longer school year are suggested.  A different textbook, an iPhone application, and budgetary threats are recommended to improve our faltering math education.  Student motivation is often the limiting factor.
Perhaps we should focus on making math relevant and more interesting to students.  What fascinates them?  Odds are, many of their pastimes involve math.
Music?  Sports?  Travel?  Math is relevant to portions of each of these pursuits.  The lessons must be integrated with the students’ interest.  Failing this, we see student disinterest.  Cramming lessons down their throats hasn’t worked.  Why not try something else?
After some student successes in their areas of interest, a teacher can easily demonstrate how the same techniques of math can be applied to other fields of study.  This fosters creativity and allows many styles of teaching, thinking, and learning to participate.
Math associated with a student’s genuine interests and the techniques of problem solving should be the emphasis.  Problem solving, a lifelong endeavor, is not a matter of logical deductions from memorized formulas, but a cultivated ability to use one’s imagination.  Math lessons must stop stifling a student’s education.
At least part of the motivation for this, and many articles, is anger.  It is distressing to have agreement on the enormity of our collective problems with math as is stated by educators, standardized testing results, employers, and authors.  It’s even more exasperating because we are pummeled with statistics, on-the-job problems, and depend upon math and yet seem so indifferent to actually improving our situation. 

Alan Cook is part-time faculty at College of the Redwoods, co-owner of Solar Hot Water Plus in Arcata and author of A Trip To The Number Yard;  A Fun and Easy Guide to the Math You Need for Construction.