The New New Math

Twilight Sparkle Math Time by the REALamddude

Twilight Sparkle Math Time
by the REALamddude

As I write this, my husband Nick sits at the desk across from me studying for the GRE (for yet another degree). “Math is hard,” he complains, just like a ‘90s Barbie.

Like it or not, math is rising in importance.  The current era of big data means that in the future we will have more information to synthesize—both qualitative and yes, quantitative.  That means numbers.  That means math.  Sure, computers will do much of the work, but the ability to quickly assess a vast array of metrics will be as essential for most jobs in the next decade as typing has been in the last two (I still blame my high school career counselor for persuading me to forgo typing for a second year of French).

In the US, movements like STEM and the controversial Common Core curriculum are trying to get ahead of this curve.  The US is not alone.  A couple of weeks back I few to Brussels to speak at the European Commission’s Digital Action Day.  Like the US, many European countries are rethinking the breadth of mathematics and sciences skills required to compete globally.

The panel in which I participated focused on how Europe should best prepare for future that required advanced digital skills.  Another panelist, a senior advisor for Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, showed series of photos of his six-year-old son sitting in his lap interacting with a computer.  He eloquently compared his son’s instinctive and joyful experience with this rudimentary problem-solving lesson to Finland’s broader need to institutionalize such skill building in primary education.

Math has been a source of controversy throughout my life.  I was a “new math” kid*.  It came easy to me, but I remember everyone getting bent out of shape about it.  I just did my new math and stayed quiet.  It wasn’t cool to be good at math—new or otherwise.

A few years later, when I was high school, there was a school-wide assembly where the dean announced the new inductees to Mu Alpha Theta—a national honor society for those with a notable aptitude for math.  He called my name.  I was surprised but not honored.  I mean, you can’t say geek any louder than Mu Alpha Theta.  All inductees understood this, as did our classmates.  Two years later, when I chose an engineering college over liberal arts one my guidance counselor—the same one who recommended French over typing—tried to persuade me otherwise.  Thankfully, this time I didn’t listen.

It’s good to know that today’s students aren’t being discouraged from science and math.  Even if the Core Curriculum turns out to be a new new math, at least the old math is now on higher ground.

*Note: If you’ve never heard of new math, here’s a quick overview by satirist Tom Lehrer.


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