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

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.

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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.

If I were smart, I would be some enterprising young pharmaceutical company guy, and I’d say:”With all the Prozac and Zoloft that’s going on, Math man would design Algebrax to help reduce math anxiety but watch out for the possible side effects: Nausea, vomiting, high blood pressure, and insomnia due to sudden, unexplainable inability to count sheep”. I know I am joking about it but I’ve met adults with it. It is no joke. I just bring up math and they want to confess everything. They are shaking. I know. It sounds funny. It’s a real deal. It is not a fakey fakey.

Once again, back to my question. How are we going to answer that question? Are we going to use this stuff in real life? And I had to reach down to the depths of my soul to come up with an answer that felt right and worked. You know what I said? I said, “You know what? You won’t.” I needed a forklift to pick up the jaws off the desk and put them back in their heads. Because they are amazed, a guy like me would actually admit that we don’t actually need higher math in real life. Imagine that.

So, I had to answer the question myself. When do you use math in real life? Think about it for a second. First thing I bet you came up in your mind was money, right? Financial stuff, budget, taxes, balancing your checkbook. I get that. What do you need for that? You need accounting, estimating, adding, subtracting, multiplying, diving, two decimal places, not rounding to the nearest 10,000th place, something like that. We don’t need that.

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Okay. What else? Maybe for some cooking and carpentry, you need some basic fraction. Basic fraction. Not 2/5 plus 3/7 of common denominator, blah blah, which I dish out every single year. They don’t need that anymore. You throw in 20% off at the mall 15% tip at a restaurant you use some basic percentages and that is it. How old are you when you learn this stuff? Thank you. 10. I usually get the answer around ten, so, just for the sake of the argument, let’s say at the end of elementary school you’ve learned all the math that you will need in real life! Then, what the heck are we learning middle and high school math stuff for? It has got to go. Do you agree with me? Maybe. If you don’t, at least think about it. Think about it. This is coming from a math teacher. Whoah, OK?

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