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February 3, 2006

The problem with pushing math

Getting Norwegian high school kids to take advanced math classes appears to be an important goal. The Norwegian school system is offering extra grade points to students who choose math and science subjects in high school, and this year even more points are being given to each math/science student than last year. Articles regularly appear in the country's leading newspaper with the following message: "mathematics are the future; this is where the money is; look at Bill Gates!".

There are two problems with this picture:

1. Officially spreading the message that math is good doesn't drown out the other message that teachers, parents, the media and the government are constantly feeding to students: that math is difficult and that numbers are scary. There is still a very strong prejudice against math and science in our society, not to mention a horrible idea that you need to sacrifice your creativity if you want to be a good math student (leading to the idea that if you don't understand equations, you're not stupid, you're an artist).

2. The wrong people are pushing math and science, using the wrong methods. Who do students who don't particularly enjoy math class look up to? Chances are: not math teachers, not physics professors, not hackers. Not Bill Gates.

3. There are two things I know my parents would like me to consider when I eventually choose my career: Be whatever you want to be when you grow up, as long as you do your job exceptionally well. Don't choose your education just because the market for that kind of skill is looking good at the moment; these things change. In short: do whatever it is you do best. Math is not what many otherwise brilliant people do best. They may do well, but they may do better in language, history, the arts etc. (I'm tempted to say that a student with an absolute advantage in many subjects including math, but a comparative advantage in a different subject, would choose not to study advanced math in order to follow the career advice above. Excuse me, I'm taking courses in economics these days.) Advice along the lines of: "study math/science, because then you can work with math/science and earn lots of money", doesn't work on these students. But what does?

I have never considered myself a number-person. I'm a word person (which is why I tend to go on and on here). I'm "creative", since I have been doing drama since the age of five. I was "bad at math" in elementary school, because I couldn't memorize the multiplication table and yell the answers fast enough in arithmetic games. And I lack the kind of curiosity needed for chemistry, physics and biology - I really don't care how machines operate or wonder at how nature works. I have always known that I wasn't going to be a doctor or a scientist. Yet I have taken the most advanced math and physics classes possible in high school. It was difficult, boring and stressful - and given the choice, I would do it again.

So I am working on a longer post, my own version of "Why YOU need to study math and science!" My message will be something like this:

"Math is difficult and doesn't seem relevant for your career plans - and this is precisely why you should take advanced math in high school."


Posted by Julie at February 3, 2006 6:19 PM

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