Should We Stop Teaching Upper Level Math? You Might Be Surprised!

Should We Stop Teaching Math?My boys hate math.  When they were younger, they actually liked math.  They loved the days of using manipulatives with math – especially if I used something like M&Ms!  Even though they hate math, they’re both pretty good at it.  My 12-year-old who is 7th grade age has already started Algebra I and he’s doing a great job.  But he still groans when he needs to do his math.

I recently heard a TED talk called, “Why Math Instruction is Unnecessary” by John Bennett which blew my mind.  John Bennett, a middle school math teacher, spent almost 12 minutes developing the argument that 99% of the population doesn’t need to be taught higher level math.  Seriously?!?  If there is a way to stop having to teach my boys math, I definitely wanted to hear all about it.

John gave the following 4 reasons for why students are taught higher-level math:

1.  Math is everywhere – God is a god of order.  He has placed mathematical patterns in everything from the spiral of the seeds in a sunflower to the spiral of the galaxies.

2.  Math is helpful – It is necessary for most scientific and technological advancement.boy using pattern blocks

3. Math could be required – Our kids might choose a job which will require it someday.

4. Math helps you get good grades – Kids need good grades to get good test scores.  They need good test scores to get into a good college.  And they need to get into a good college to get a good job.

Some kids are interested in math. For those kids, John recommends helping them to go as high with math as they would like. He then went on to say that about one half percent of our population becomes an engineer and about one half percent of the population uses some math in their job. Kids also need to learn about math-related items such as student loans to understand repayments and interest rates, for example. The other 99% of the population doesn’t need higher mathematics.

John said that forcing ALL kids to learn higher mathematics causes them to feel stupid and stresses them out.  And stressed out kids become stressed out adults.

The math needed by 99% of the population

John emphasized that the majority of this math is learned by age 10.  If this is all the math that 99% of the populations needs to know, then why are we requiring all students to take higher level math?  John says that it’s because we are trying to teach them inductive and deductive reasoning.

Learn & Grow Hands-On Lessons for Active Preschoolers

Inductive reasoning is when we learn to think in the following manner:  If I study for a test, then I will do well on a test.  If I do well on a test, then my parents will be happy.  So I want to study for my tests to make my parents happy.

Deductive reasoning is when we see a pattern and then come to a conclusion.  For example, if we learn to solve an algebraic equation which looks a certain way, then we will know that every time we see a problem which looks like that, we’ll know to solve it that same way.

John said that quite often, just solving page after page of math problems doesn’t help students to make those inductive or deductive leaps.  He recommended that it would be more productive to instead let 99% of students work logic puzzles and various games to help them to increase their reasoning skills and problem solving abilities.

Five Activities which will help your child to increase their reasoning skills:

  • Video Games – Believe it or not, video games actually help kids learn to make quick and accurate decisions.  They help them develop better hand-eye coordination as well as enhancing their spacial intelligence.  There are many games kids enjoy playing which aren’t filled with violence or crime.  Minecraft is a game my boys LOVE to play.  They also love playing fast action sports games on the Wii U such as NBA 2K13 and Madden NFL 13. And they love the Lego series of games such as The Hobbit and The Lego Movie.
  • family playing board gameBoard Games – Board games are excellent at helping kids to become more number smart, word smart, and people smart.  All games force the players to make decisions, come up with good strategies, and interact with the other players.  You can find a list of some games that boys especially love to play here.
  • Sports and Exercise – Being physically active boosts blood flow to all parts of the body including the brain.  Complex reasoning, concentration, and thinking speed are all enhanced when the brain is supplied with freshly oxygenated blood.  The more your kids move the better they will be able to think.  Physical activity also has the positive benefits of increasing creativity, promoting clear thinking, improving coordination, and decreasing depression.
  • Music Training – Research shows that the brains of kids who learn to play a musical instrument work differently than the brains of kids who don’t receive any musical training.  “When you’re a musician and you’re playing an instrument, you have to be using more of your brain,” says Dr. Eric Rasmussen, chair of the Early Childhood Music Department at the Peabody Preparatory of The Johns Hopkins University.  Musical training boosts a child’s IQ, increases their spatial intelligence, and develops their skill to solve multistep problems such as the ones encountered in architecture, engineering, math, and computer science.
  • playing the pianoCritical Thinking – Teaching our kids critical thinking is an excellent way to increase their reasoning skills.  Have them solve logic puzzles.  Encourage them to ask questions.  Help them to consider alternate explanations and solutions to problems.  Help them to notice logical fallacies
    in thinking.  Encourage them to reason about ethical, moral, and public policy issues.  Teach them debating skills.

Should we stop teaching our kids higher level math?  I can’t answer that question for you and your family.  I can only say that my husband and I will be praying about this matter and see which way we feel God is leading us.

One big thing to consider is that higher math skills are necessary if you’re planning to have your child take the ACT or SAT.  There are ways around these tests, however, if you’re wanting to send your kids to college but don’t want to have them take these tests.

For this coming year, we are planning to at least give a lower emphasis to math and a higher emphasis to critical thinking skills.  Long term, however, we haven’t made a final decision about how to proceed.  My boys ENJOY learning about logic and completing logic puzzles – they cringe when they have to complete math problems… We’ll definitely be doing some more pondering and praying!

Question:  How about you?  Do you plan to teach your kids higher level math?  Did watching this video spark any new ideas about how your family will proceed?  Please leave a comment below.

18 thoughts on “Should We Stop Teaching Upper Level Math? You Might Be Surprised!”

  1. This is really fascinating to me. I would love to hear more as the boys move on through the higher level grades and into college/life. It is definitely something to think through and figure out in terms of where your kids want to end up , what skills they will need to accomplish the job/vision God gives them. If I don’t have to push math, I wouldn’t either!! But knowing the balance between “the way it has always been done”, college prep, and the rest of their lives is a new balancing beam exercise.

    1. Michelle Caskey

      This is SO TRUE! And it definitely takes courage to do things differently than the way they are traditionally done. We’re doing a ton of praying around here and trying to be open to whatever God has for the boys. 🙂

  2. I would have to partly agree; I could have gotten a math major in college if I’d taken two more classes, but I hated it so much by then, I didn’t. Actually, I hated it more and more up to calculus, loved calculus because it explained all the torture of the previous 2-3 years, but after that got more and more frustrated with it. Because what’s the point of solving a problem in an n-dimensional universe when I can’t even picture the fourth dimension?
    In general, I marvel at how little I use any of that math in daily life. However, there are some areas where I think higher math is well worth it, and maybe most people don’t realize these things are more math than arithmetic is.
    I wish more people understood calculus (which you can understand the idea of without knowing the rather confusing notation calculus problems are written in) because it explains why interest rates that seem so miniscule end up doing things like tripling the cost of your house over a 30-year loan. And, conversely, why saving small percentages of your paycheck starting at age 20 can add up to huge amounts by 50. (And why small percentages of cost-of-living-increases can then take the value of it away.) Also, calculus is important for keeping discussions about overpopulation in hand (yes, mathematically, populations can explode; therefore, there are other factors going on or we would have today’s population within a few centuries from Adam and Eve – or Noah.)
    Understanding what’s special about circles, ellipses, and parabolas is important to understanding why an amphitheater works and where you want to stand to hear best or project best, why you want parabolic headlights and flashlights, how your glasses (and eyeballs) work, and why coins do what they do in those “black hole” fundraising things you see at places like science museums.
    Then there are the geometry problems useful for farming that Mom would give me: if you have a goat on a 10-foot rope, tied at the corner of a building, how much grass is in the 3/4 circle it can eat? All right then, what if the rope is tied 5 feet from the corner? She said my grandfather, a farmer, understood what limits were about because he talked about how a big pig can’t get through a small hole, but a small pig can, and a slightly bigger pig can, and a yet slightly bigger pig then can, and suddenly the big pig is through the hole. (Yes, we’re also talking about the behavior of escaping pigs, but the basic idea is there of “if x+y doesn’t work, what about x+y/2? What about x+y/4?”
    Anyway, my main problem with math is that it starts with the most boring parts, and it’s amazing that ANYONE gets through long division, decimals, and fractions and still thinks it’s fun!

    1. Michelle Caskey

      Excellent comment, Karen! I know that math stopped me as well. In college, I could have double-majored in writing and computer science – but the university I attended required you to have a math minor if you majored in computer science… so I minored in computer science instead. I still had to take calculus but I couldn’t tell you anything about what I learned in that class at this point in my life…

      I love how you came up with so many practical and interesting examples for how math CAN be used. You should write a curriculum called Useful and Interesting Higher Math! I’d buy it for my boys! 😉

      BTW – I’ve been trying to find a statistics program which uses baseball or other sports stats to make it relevant to the students. Maybe something tailored for kids who are interested in coaching or becoming a general manager someday. I know my oldest son would LOVE THAT!!! Anyone have any suggestions?!? I’d appreciate hearing them. 🙂

      1. I just googled “learn statistics using baseball” and there is actually something called “Sandlot Stats” – you can see it on Amazon or there is a website. I have no idea if this is what you want, but thought I would pass it on!

        1. Michelle Caskey

          Thanks, Sarah! I’ve just contacted the author to find out more about that book but it looks VERY INTERESTING!

    2. This is fabulous! I love all these practical examples that use higher level math! I think science get the short end as well because the average curriculum is so boring! My kids ask for science daily because it’s riveting and FUN! Your comment makes math actually seem FUN! Thank you for sharing!

      1. Michelle Caskey

        Thank-you for your kind comment, Julie. Yeah, if we try to foist off boring curriculum on our kids just so that we can check it off the list for the day, or because it’s what “everyone” else is using, they certainly aren’t going to retain much (if anything) that they are taught. Sounds like you’re on the right track with your kiddos if they are asking for science daily! Way to go!

  3. I was a math major. I could do the problems, but never really got “why” I was doing the problems. That is what is missing. It goes to what Karen has said, I think. Math can be so interesting, but how do you get kids excited about it? Can you work “backwards”? Find a problem the child is really interested in which will eventually require they learn the basics to solve it?

    After watching the video you suggested, I watched a couple of other math videos. The first, with Arthur Benjamin and Fibonacci numbers, and the second with Adam Spencer and monster primes. It was fun to watch people who were really excited about math and how fascinating and beautiful it can be (preview Spencer video before kids watch).

    I also watched another video by Dan Meyer on Math Class Needs a Makeover. He’s really getting the kids to think about what information they will need to solve a problem rather than being fed exactly what they need.

    I’ll be honest. While I think there is a lot of truth to what is said in the video, we will be going forward with Saxon. I have a 10th Grader and we have started Advanced Math this year (we’ll take 2 years). I’m sticking with it probably for all the “wrong” reasons – SAT, getting into college, etc., but that is where my comfort level is. I fear that if we don’t, he may need it later and will be “behind”.

    If he really hated math and made me drag him to the table every morning, then maybe I would have a different take. He doesn’t love it, but I will say he is much more intuitive than I am. So, for now, we move forward. But, I may show him some of these videos with people who are really excited about math.


    1. Michelle Caskey

      Some kids should definitely keep on going with higher levels of math. And to be honest, I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do around here, either. Like I said in my post, my 7th grader is already in Algebra I.

      I’ll check out those videos you were talking about… and we’ll definitely be praying about this whole thing. It’s definitely food for thought, though. Why are we teaching our kids what we’re teaching them? And could we pick better?

    1. Michelle Caskey

      One way is for your kids to dual enroll in community college classes while they are in high school. Then, they transfer to the college of their choice and don’t enter as a freshman. 🙂

  4. Fascinating – I’m watching the TED Talk with my husband right now!

    It’s funny – I didn’t love math until after I left high school, so one part of me feels like kids should learn it because they might unexpectedly enjoy it later on. At the same time, I enjoyed math in my 20s as I learned it in college – and none of it was the math I did in my teens. I really could have skipped all my high school math and been just fine.

    Lots to think about!

    1. Yes, there really is a lot to think about. I know LOTS of people who didn’t do certain things until later in life – when they were ready – and then became very successful with it. George Winston, a concert pianist, didn’t start playing the piano until he was in his 20s. Mark Hamby, a book publisher, didn’t read his first book until he was in his 20s.

      Before watching that video, I was under the impression that math was one of the subjects that you SHOULD NEVER skip no matter what. Reading, writing, and arithmetic, right?!? Anyway, after hearing John Bennett’s explanation, it caused me to rethink my position somewhat.

      And honestly, I’ve been all the way through Calculus and I do not remember much of anything about Algebra, Geometry, Trig, or Calculus because I don’t use it in my daily life…

    1. Yeah, I recommend you watch the video for sure. It’s super interesting!

      FYI – we decided to take a step back from math this year and teach personal finance instead. Both of my boys enjoyed the break. And now, as summer is approaching, they’ve both approached me separately and have said that they think they need to do some traditional math over the summer so they can get back into it before next year. Their reasoning was because they wanted to be sure they were ready for college. That’s a win in my book. If THEY are the ones wanting to get back into it rather than ME being the ones pushing them, it’s going to go a whole lot better! I’m super happy about the change in attitude.

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