I can finally put my SDSU math major and teaching degree to their fullest use: helping my eighth-grader with her algebra homework.
But I also put my blogging skills to use to remind her that the high school math she’s prepping for is mental calisthenics that she won’t use much for the rest of her life… according to my own experience and a survey of listeners of the Freakonomics podcast:
Daphne MARTSCHENKO: So, we’ve been putting together a survey that we sent out to Freakonomics listeners. We asked our survey respondents which subjects they use in their daily life, traditional math and data-related. So trigonometry, geometry, calculus, versus more data-related skills like analyzing and interpreting data and visualizing it.
Steven LEVITT: So what percent of people, say, use calculus on a daily basis?
MARTSCHENKO: About 2 percent said that they use calculus on a daily basis, and almost 80 percent say they never use it.
LEVITT: Okay. I would think calculus would get used more than trigonometry and geometry, although that would be hard if only 2 percent are using it. But what percent use trigonometry and geometry?
MARTSCHENKO: Yeah. Less than 2 percent of respondents said that they use trigonometry in their daily life, but over 70 percent of them said that they never use it.
LEVITT: And how about geometry?
MARTSCHENKO: Geometry was a little bit better. There were about 4 percent of respondents who said that they use geometry daily, but again, over 50 percent said that they never use it [Steven D. Levitt, “America’s Math Curriculum Doesn’t Add Up (Ep. 391),” Freakonomics, 2019.10.02].
Much as I love the quadratic formula (I have told students that august formula is one of the few things I would consider tattooing on my arm), I cannot recall using it in the past 30 years outside of a teaching or tutoring situation.
What mathematical tool do I use almost every day? Spreadsheets:
LEVITT: …Now, what do we find when we asked about some of the data-related tools? What about simple things — I’ve always thought we should teach Excel in the schools. Do people actually use Excel, or is that just my imagination?
MARTSCHENKO: Yeah. Close to 70 percent of people said that they use Excel or Google Spreadsheets on a daily basis. We ask people how often they visualize and present data to make an argument. So if you include those who say they visualize data, daily, weekly, and monthly, you’re gonna get over 70 percent — close to 75 percent of people.
LEVITT: Okay, great. But we didn’t just ask them what they used. We also asked them what they wished they had learned more of. So tell me, which of the traditional math topics were people hoping that they had gotten more of in high school?
MARTSCHENKO: None. Virtually.
LEVITT: So, how about the data skills? I mean, we hardly teach data skills, so my guess is, people are going to want more of that. That’s what our premise was. Is that what the data tell us?
MARTSCHENKO: Yes, on every single one of the data-related questions we asked, over 40 percent of people said that they wish they had learned more. But the ones that really stood out were how to analyze and interpret data to discover hidden insights. We had close to 65 percent of people say that they wished they learned more about that.
LEVITT: I wish I’d learned more about that. That’s the most valuable skill in the world.
MARTSCHENKO: Yeah. And on top of that, we had 60 percent who said that they wish they’d learned more about how to visualize and present data to make an argument. So those two definitely go together [Levitt, 2019.10.02].
I love Algebra 2, trigonometry, and calculus. Yet I would strike all of them (sparing at least a little trig, because measuring the height of the water tower in Larson Park without leaving the ground is pretty cool) to make room for all high school students to take statistics—not just standard deviation, correlation, and more complicated measurements but also data moves, the skills necessary to group, filter, merge, and reorganize data so we can make sense of the numbers the world offers.
I’ll get my eighth-grader through algebra and prepare her for all the high school math curriculum will throw at her. But I’ll also make sure she messes around with Numbers or Open Office Calc so she’s equipped for what’s really coming next.