A couple of days ago, Rhett Allain of Dot Physics suggested that not everyone needs a “functional understanding of math” to get by.
What percent of people in this world have a functional understanding of math? (let me just say functional understanding means they can do basic word problems and understand what is going on) If I estimate this percent of people at 50%, you might argue that this is too high, but that is my estimate. …
Now compare this to the ability to read and write. I think that in this society you really need to know how to read and write to get along
He then goes on to say, thankfully, that yes the world would be a better place if more people understood math, and yes you should study it.
However I think it’s still worth critiquing what’s going on here. Rhett’s definition of a functional math competency is boiled down to understanding word problems. Later on, he continues in the comments and generalizes more to “anything above counting”, although he seems to mean anything above basic arithmetic.
There are some weird problems going on here, and they’re not uncommon. First of all, “word problems” are given as a starting point – probably because they symbolize a roughly late-elementary or middle-school level of mathematics. And yet, when is the last time you saw a word problem outside of a classroom? Of course word problems are irrelevant to real-life competency – they’re a construct used solely in schools. Ironically, these problems are ones which test both reading/writing skill as well as mathematics, and often it’s the reading comprehension that makes students struggle with these problems.
But looking beyond that, there’s a bigger problem of apples-to-oranges. Anything beyond arithmetic is considered “math”, and arithmetic is something lesser. And yet, isn’t arithmetic the same kind of base-level functional skill that reading and writing are? To put it another way, when is the last time you heard someone say, “Oh, I don’t know how to write” because they aren’t any good at composing sonnets, or writing essays? And yet “I don’t know how to do math” is the message we hand to students who have trouble with factoring, solving equations or deciphering clumsy word problems.
So do we need “math”? If we’re talking basic numeracy, yes. Beyond that, we may be able to get by, but we’ll be a lot more competent and much less taken advantage of if we expand our numeracy to include basic probability, statistics, and core algebra skills. I file this directly next to skills like: reading and critiquing print media and rhetoric, critical media literacy (ie. video, etc), basic political and economic knowledge. I view these as near-mandatory as a public school educator because I don’t want my students to grow up and get ripped off, taken advantage of, and used for other people’s political or economic gain without understanding what just happened. They may be able to get by without it, but they won’t be as free as they could be.