Mathematics classes do not teach mathematics literacy

Both the phrases “mathematics classes” and “mathematics literacy” can be ambiguous, so I am meaning–

“Mathematics classes”: The high school curriculum delivered to a typical student in the United States. This usually excludes classes like “Statistics” or “Financial Math”.

“Mathematics literacy”: The kind of “good citizen” math that people refer to in articles like Headlines from a Mathematically Literate World. The word can also mean “ability to problem solve”, but that’s not what I mean here.

Taking the Headlines article and the classes of a typical high school mathematics student, how many of the headlines would a a student understand?

At the very least, understanding the entire list requires knowing about: correlation vs. causation, inflation, experimental replication, estimation of large numbers, incompatibility of comparisons with different conditions, understanding how tax brackets work, meaninglessness of predictions within a margin of error, statistically unlikely events, and reversion to the mean.

None of these will ever occur in an traditional math class. In other words, in the list of supposed math literacies, the typical math student in the US receives zero of them. (Some might possibly show up in a class labelled “Economics” or “Free Enterprise”, but those don’t get called Math Classes).

It’d be fair to argue I’m being highly specific in my starting definitions, but I often see the “good citizen” argument used during a general “why are we teaching math” type discussion which assumes a traditional math class track. That sort of argument only works if people are prepared to also overhaul the curriculum (by putting, for example, statistics before calculus as Arthur Benjamin discusses at TED).

Why is a negative divided by a negative a positive?

So there’s a whole lot of posts, including one from this very blog, which give intuitive explanations of why a negative times a negative is a positive.


I haven’t seen nearly as much material for a negative divided by a negative. One can certainly appeal to the inverse — since 1 \times -1 = -1, \frac{-1}{-1} = 1. Google searching leads to answers like that, but I’ve found nothing like the multiplication picture above.

Can anyone explain directly, at an intuitive level, why a negative divided by a negative is a positive? Or is the only way to do it to refer to multiplication?

The evolution of mathematical exposition

More rambly and unsubstantiated than usual, apologies –



Theory: Mathematical exposition has evolved just like fiction writing has. However, tradition has held stronger in mathematics (likely due to a need for precision) and it means that clarity in writing is if not actively discouraged at least passively devalued.

Theory: We are not anywhere near the threshold of simplest and clearest explanations in the exposition of mathematical subjects.

Still, what used to be difficult is now considered easier. Various subjects have shifted their supposed level. For instance, not long ago College Algebra was the prestige class at the top of the high school level.

Furthermore, our raw definitions of what each class is has shuffled the actual content of subjects; Algebra I from the 1940s is not the Algebra I of today.

Theory: It would be possible to take a “hard” subject like group theory or transcendental number theory and make it comprehensible at a lower level. However, as there is no requirement to do so there is little motivation to make the subject easier. When a curriculum shift happens to move topics to a lower level, mathematical exposition evolves to catch up.

Book update (and call for testers)

Don’t get too excited yet — the big one (Why Algebra Works, you’re best off reading this post for an idea of how it is being written) isn’t done.

However, in the midst of work I realized I was assuming the readers would remember how integer operations went, and it was quite possible they forgot, so I worked on a appendix. The appendix ballooned into a full fledged … short story? novella? … and got to the point that I even separated addition/subtraction from multiplication/division.

So the first part (addition/subtraction of integers) is close to ready, and it does follow my percepts, namely–

1.) that it should have a smooth writing style modeled after popular math articles (like Steven Strogatz or Martin Gardner) rather than textbooks

2.) that there are no “problems” but rather “puzzles”, roughly defined as anything that wouldn’t be out of place alongside a Sudoku book or in the middle of a Professor Layton game

3.) that there is a strong emphasis on meta-thinking; that is, having readers examine whatever mental model they are using in a particular part of mathematics and diagnosing where misconceptions may come about at the internal level.

As an example of #3, I start by asking the reader to add 2 + 2 (really), examining the possible ways of visualizing it and which ways might be more or less helpful.

In any case, everything is so unlike the textbook approach that I need some beta testers. In particular, while I would like some people who are adept in mathematics, I would also like some people who think that are not good at math or even actively dislike it. I’m guessing the latter don’t read this blog I’m going to need some help — if you know someone who might be a good candidate, could you send the word along? I’ll get back to everyone in a few weeks.

You can either post here or toss a line to my email over at my About Page.

Impossible Learning: watch someone trying to learn calculus from scratch

David Wees retweeted this from Jared Cosulich:

It turns out Impossible Learning is a just-started-last-month blog where Jared is trying to learn Calculus and post about his struggles. It’s terrific and you should read it. See him ask the perennial question When Will I Use This?

And I immediately found myself saying “come on, when am I ever going to have to find the limit of this random equation”.

I felt like I was back in High School again.

But seriously, why is this one of the first things I’m directed to learn when I want to know more about Calculus? Why is it so hard for me to find some practical applications of this material? I know there is value in understanding the abstract math, but I’d like to balance that with at least some understanding of how this works practically…

Or his attempt at explaining the power rule:

I don’t think this actually counts as a proof, but it definitely made the “Power Rule” click for me a bit more. Basically it’s saying that the derivative of a square (x²) is two lines (2x) and the derivative of a cube (x³) is three squares (3x²).

So for a square to get a tiny bit bigger you need to add on two lines (one to the top and one to a side). Similarly for a cube to get a tiny bit bigger you need to add a square to three sides (e.g. top, right, and front).

Counting puzzle from the first US puzzle championship

My students had fun with this one today. Part d is what showed up in the actual championship.

One night, in an attempt to combat insomnia, you begin counting (1, 2, 3, …), but you decide to do it digit by digit. As you go along, for example, the 15th digit you count is the 2 of the number 12.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

a.) What’s the 50th digit you count?
b.) What’s the 100th digit you count?
c.) What’s the 1000th digit you count?
d.) What’s the 1,000,000th digit you count?

Commentary on “Wrong Answer: The Case Against Algebra II”

There’s a new article by the author Nicholson Baker that is not raising as much a fuss as “Is Algebra Necessary?” from The New York Times last year, probably because it’s at Harper’s behind a paywall. Also, as I write this children are fleeing from algebra all over magazine stands:


The title strikes me as odd, given that the general argument is aimed at all algebra, and the text constantly references algebra as a whole rather than the quite US-specific version of Algebra II. (As far as I’m aware no other country has such a thing; most of them integrate all forms of mathematics together.) What is Algebra II anyway, and where is the cutoff point where Nicholson Baker considers algebra to be too hard to handle? He hints at what he’d like as a replacement, which strikes me as a math appreciation analogous to music appreciation courses:

We should, I think, create a new, one-year teaser course for ninth graders, which would briefly cover a few techniques of algebraic manipulation, some mindstretching geometric proofs, some nifty things about parabolas and conic sections, and even perhaps a soft-core hint of the innitesimal, change-explaining powers of calculus. Throw in some scatter plots and data analysis, a touch of mathematical logic, and several representative topics in math history and math appreciation.

This seems like a truly random collection of topics, but it sounds like Mr. Baker is basing his list off the notion of using The Joy of x by Steven Strogatz as a possible text.

I have had some personal experience with using popular texts; when I team-taught statistics at the University of Arizona we used The Drunkard’s Walk, Fooled by Randomness, and Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities. While it led to interesting discussions, there just wasn’t enough meat to have students do problem solving based solely on the text. The math from the books was purely a passive experience. (We still did just fine by augmenting with our own material.)

I still hold forward the absurd idea that students still solve math problems in a math class. If you’re designing a freshman mathematics-teaser course, I might humbly suggest Problem Solving Strategies: Crossing the River with Dogs, which has the virtue of steering away from algebra as the sole touchstone for problem solving.

Back to Mr. Baker’s attempt to define Algebra I:

Six weeks of factoring and solving simple equations is enough to give any student a rough idea of what the algebraic ars magna is really like, and whether he or she has any head for it.

Mr. Baker himself seems to have a confused idea of what algebra is like, but he’s not alone. (See: my prior post on what is algebra and why you might have the wrong idea.) Also of note: some countries don’t bother to factor quadratics. (I haven’t made a map comparing countries, but it seems to be continental Europe that ignores it and just says “use the quadratic formula”.)

I could see solving equations managed in six weeks, but in a turgid, just-the-rules style that would be the opposite of what we’d want in this kind of appreciation class in the first place. Just the concept of a variable can take some students a month to wrap their head around, making me disturbed by the notion that six weeks would be enough for a student to find “whether he or she has any head for it”. (This isn’t even touching the issue of just how much is internal to the student. I’ve heard dyscalculia estimates of up to 7% of all students, but excluding that group a great deal of the attitude seems culturally specific. Allegedly in Hungary [I don’t have a hard research paper or anything, this is just from personal anecdotes] it is quite common for folks to say mathematics was their favorite subject in school and the level of disdain isn’t remotely comparable to the US.)

They are forced, repeatedly, to stare at hairy, squarerooted, polynomialed horseradish clumps of mute symbology that irritate them

The article’s invective along these lines makes me wonder again how much the visual aspect to mathematics is the source of hatred, as opposed to the mathematics itself.


This picture is from the Adventure Time episode “Slumber Party Panic” and is supposed to represent the ultimate in math difficulty. However, the math symbolism is strewn truly at random and there is no real problem here. I am guessing a good chunk of the audience couldn’t even tell the difference and for them, any difficult math problem looks like random symbolic gibberish.

This is related to another issue, that of bad writing. Here’s Mr. Baker quoting a textbook:

A rational function is a function that you can write in the form f(x) = P(x)/Q(x), where P(x) and Q(x) are polynomial functions. The domain of f(x) is all real numbers except those for which Q(x) = 0.

I claim the above definition is simply bad writing, and a cursory check of the Internet reveals several definitions I’d peg as clearer in a students-who-don’t-like-math-are-trying-to-read sense:

Google’s dictionary:

any function which can be written as the ratio of two polynomial functions.


a function that is the quotient of two polynomials

Some random webpage I found at Oregon State:

“Rational function” is the name given to a function which can be represented as the quotient of polynomials, just as a rational number is a number which can be expressed as a quotient of whole numbers.

Hardy’s A Course of Pure Mathematics, page 38:

the quotient of one polynomial by another

Godfrey Harold Hardy admittedly goes on from there, but his text is written for mathematicians. High school texts have no such excuse.

In a similar vein, the article later quotes a 7th grade Common Core standard:

solve word problems leading to equations of the form px + q = r and p(x+q)=r, where p, q, and r are specific rational numbers

which I suppose is meant to be horrifying, but in this case the standards are written for the teachers and aim to remove any ambiguity. Here’s problems that matches the standard:

1. You bought 3 sodas for 99 cents each and paid 10 cents in tax. How much money did you pay?
2. You bought 4 candies for 1.50 each and paid $6.20. How much was tax?

The standards can’t simply produce many examples and gesture vaguely. They must be exact. Just because 4th grade specifies that students “Explain why a fraction a/b is equivalent to a fraction (n×a)/(n×b)” does not mean students are using variables to do so. (In case you’re curious what it does look like to the 4th graders, Illustrative Mathematics has tasks here and here matching the standard.)

There’s lots more to comment on, but let me leave off for the moment on this quote, because I’m curious…

Math-intensive education hasn’t done much for Russia, as it turns out.

…is this statement (in the last paragraph of the article) accurate?


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