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John Bennett on Why Math Instruction is Unnecessary (Full Transcript)

John Bennett

Here is the full transcript of John Bennett’s presentation on Why Math Instruction is Unnecessary at TEDxManhattanBeach.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: John Bennett on Why Math Instruction is Unnecessary at TEDxManhattanBeach

John Bennett – Math Teacher

Thank you. Hello, my name is John Bennett, and I’m a middle school and high school math teacher. But I have to tell you something. I don’t think what I teach is very important. In fact, if it were up to me I would no longer require math to be taught, or I should say required in middle school and high school.

Now, some of you may not agree with me, and that’s OK, but that’s what this is all about, right? So, my attitude wasn’t always this way. In fact, it’s evolved over time. And I want to show it with my story of how it evolved and also what we can do about it, my solution that will come at the end.

It all started with what I call ‘the big question’. All my students ask me this every year: “Mr. B, when are we going to use this stuff in, like, you know, like real life, this math stuff?” I had to come up with an answer to that. So, I came up with one, I was a green math teacher, I was full of optimism, I was like a super hero, I was like Math Man. I was going to convince them that math is everywhere. It is in the spiral of the seeds of a sunflower, and the same spiral in galaxies, it is the same spiral. It’s a mathematical curve that is connected to something called the golden ratio which I think it is pretty cool.

But alas, that was not met by my students. But that’s OK, because I had another trick up my sleeve, another answer to the big question. That was math is helpful. Scientists would not be able to use the tool of mathematics to design the iPhone, Internet in your pocket, man, Golden Gate Bridge, cloning a sheep. You couldn’t have that without math. Right guys? Guys? Hello, is this thing on? “Yeah, whatever, Math Man! Pff!” So, that didn’t go over big.

So I had to find another way to connect my students to this math stuff. Because this stuff wasn’t working. Huh, I know. I could pick something they could relate to. You might end up choosing a job that requires some math, you know? “Yeah, like I’m into a job that requires this stuff. Pff!” But I would tell them: “You know what, maybe not now, but maybe who knows, ten years down the line you might pick something, you might want to be an engineer or something. You can do it, man!” So that’s what I became, you can do it, man. I know you can, and I’m going to help you.

And through the years, students would come back to me, my old students through emails and they would come and stop by the old school and they say, “Hey, Mr. B, how is it going?” I’m like, hey, how is your math? You still use it, right?! “No, not really…” Four of them said “Yes”. Guess what they all do? Thank you. They are math teachers.

So, I began to think they’re not really using this stuff. But don’t get me wrong. If a student comes up to me and says: “Yo, Mr. B, I want to to be an engineer. I want to use this math stuff. I like math. I like science. I want to go for it”. I would stop at nothing to make sure that kid got the resources that he or she needed. But think about it for a second. 300 million people in the United States, 1.5 million engineers. That’s a half of a percent. Let’s double that number. For every engineer, let’s say there is another person who uses some math in his or her job. That’s still only 1%. Whoah! How many percent does that make of the people that don’t need higher math? You guessed it, 99% of us don’t need it.

Hmm, so, I had to come up with something better. Another answer to the big question, when am I going to use this math stuff in real life? And I went to the dark side of the force, and I used fear, ha-haaa! I said, you know what, guess what? You are on a certain path. Yes, you are. You are on the dark side of the force. And what that dark side is all about is you’ve got to get good grades now in high school and you got to do math to get that. You got to do well on SATs. Everyone all together now. You got to get good grades in high school so you can get a good college. You got to get a good college, so you can get yourself a good job, you got to get a good job, you get good money, you get good money, to be happy and successful! Right, guys?

I had the answer to the question, and I had them in the palm of my hand. Yes. “That’s the answer I’m going to use from now on”, I said. But you know what, it didn’t really sit right, right here. Didn’t sit right. It worked. Hmm, now, I started talking to my buddies. Hey, how is it going? Facebook, high school reunions, and I realized that the guys who got this — and the women too, got the highest GPAs, went to the good colleges weren’t necessarily the most successful, whatever that means to you.

In fact, this success didn’t depend on what colleges they went to or even if they went to college. Maybe it is about the SATs. That’s it. The SATs will predict how successful my kids will be in the future, right? Well, I’m going to defer to the well-known educational reformer Alfie Kohn. Ten years ago, he said this: “The SAT is a measure of resources more than of reasoning.” Year after year, the College Board’s own statistics depict a virtually linear correlation between SAT scores and family income. Bottom line, SAT measures how rich the guy’s parents are. And, that’s it.

So this answer I had in my pocket, I had to let it go. It worked, but I had to let it go. So, I had to think of something else. And that’s when I shifted. I stopped trying to connect math with my students. And I just started to connect with them. Huh, imagine that. When I did, they started opening up to me, and talking to me about how much math was stressing them out. It does. I turned into I-am-just-here-to-help man. I am going to get you through this painful part of your life as painlessly as possible. And they started opening up to me, and they started telling me their stories. And I hate to break it to you but the story I heard most, I call them “Mr. Johnson story”. You know, “Mr. B,” they’d say, “I used to be pretty good at math. I actually liked it until I had Mr. Johnson in third grade. I know, he made me feel stupid and told me I couldn’t do it. Ever since then, I never really liked it and being good at it.” I heard that story for too many times. My students, other students, their parents, adults, my teacher at school. It is tragic. It shouldn’t be. Because these stressed-out kids became stressed-out adults.

Do you know in the last 40 years, we’ve had a term math anxiety? I am not kidding. Do you know that there are books and books about math anxiety? You are laughing, but I am not kidding. I didn’t make this stuff up. You go google this and you will find dozens of books. Here are a few my favorite titles. Conquering Math Anxiety! You need math man for that. Math, a four-letter word, and my personal favorite: Math doesn’t suck! Something has got to change about this. Do you see English anxiety or Spanish anxiety or whatever? No, math anxiety for 40 years, and that’s just the term has been around.

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