Here is the full transcript of John Bennett’s presentation 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.
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.
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?
So, then what’s the answer? No, excuse me, before I answer with the answer — I’m going to save that for the end — then why are we teaching this algebra stuff? Here’s why: Math has two different kinds of reasoning, deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning. That’s the part we take away from math. Deductive reasoning is a series of connected, logical steps that lead to a conclusion. For example, if I don’t hang out with friends after school, I’ll go to library and study. If I go and study I am going to get an A in a test, and if I get an A in the test, mom is going to be happy. Therefore if I don’t hang out with my friends at the mall after school, my mom will be happy. Deductive reasoning. We need that, we use that in everyday life.
Inductive reasoning is where we look at data we find a pattern and make a generalization based on the data. If I cram on my science test, and get an A, if I cram next day for my English test and get an A, this is working, isn’t it? Therefore it works all the time. Now, that’s not full proof but that is the kind of reasoning that we use. Math is the same kind of reasoning.
Here’s an example of deductive reasoning in math: If 2x minus one equals nine, then for 2x must equal ten, therefore x equals five. We all get that but your math teacher gives you 20 million of those problems to do for homework the next day and expects you to make the inductive reasoning leap. “Ah, every time I see a problem like that this is how I solve it!” It’s that leap actually which I find most the challenging as a math teacher. Not how to do one problem, but how to do them all that look like that.
But if there’s a zero next to the x, the whole thing falls apart. So inductive reasoning doesn’t stick all the time. But it’s something what we use all the time.
Is there an answer? Yes. Here it is. For the last ten years in my math class I’ve been incorporating a lot of puzzles and games, I call them ‘brain games’ to help develop those analytical skills. If we were to incorporate this into our classroom, I am confident that we can reawaken these critical thinking skills that are lying dormant that have been anesthetized by the standard curriculum. I’m convinced and I believe that if we make math no longer a required subject for middle school and high school, and you let the people who are connected to it, who want to take it, take it and those of us who don’t, you let them play games and puzzles that help develop that cognitive reasoning skills, I am confident that these students will not only be fully equipped to handle life challenges, but will be able to pursue their passions and fulfill their lives’ missions.
Thank you very much.