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I keep hearing that the United States ranks low in student performance in math and science. This can be interpreted at least two ways.

Interpretations 1: The United States is doing a poor job educating students in two subjects that are vital to the future of the world.

Interpretation 2: Students in the United States realize they will never need to know that mylonite is a breccieated metamorphic rock frequently found in a fault zone.

If you have kids, you know that most of what they learn in math and science is completely useless. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that kids have figured it out too.

I grant you that it is important for the future of the economy that we produce plenty of scientists and inventors and researchers. But how does it help anyone that a future chef can tell you which critters evolved in which epoch? He just needs to know which ones are good eatin'.

I'm all in favor of benchmarking against other countries for education. But isn't the average grade for math and science the most obviously useless and misleading statistic one could follow?

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Nov 24, 2008
.05x x = 1700
.05x x = 1.05x
1.05x = 1700
1700/1.05= 1619 approx
x = 1619 approx

The problem is, with today's technology this can be figured out faster and more accurately using a calculator than using our school-provided algebra skills. If a skill is no longer practically useful due to improvements in technology, would it be considered prudent to cease teaching the skill in favor of a more practically useful skill?

Oct 23, 2008
I have noticed that a great deal of the math I've learned I couldn't put a word problem to if I tried. I got superior on the state assessment tests without even trying (because aided kids had to be able to pass the test, and I was in the gifted program). No child left behind is stupid, but at least some of the math might be useful.

Oct 22, 2008
I'd have to agree - Check mate. I hated math, but had to take four classes of it, largely due to the fact that I only passed every other class. If you don't use it, you lose it, and I don't know what I'd do if someone showed me an equation from that class.

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Oct 22, 2008
Phaser says:

As an engineer, I am also disturbed by the lack of math and science education in our public schools. Even worse, is the approach to math that is called "IInvestigations". In this approach, the kids are taught every conceivable way of arriving at the answer, without ever actually reinforcing the mathematical rule that really governs the operation. So, it takes them 6 weks to cover 3x4=12, but none of them has any idea why 3x4=12, but they have 16 different methods for getting the answer. Rather than teaching them the rule, then offering alternatives if they aren't getting it, they teach all the alternatives without the rule.

Phaser, this is also denounced as "fuzzy math" and has been fought in several school districts, including Rochester. I encourage you to fight it in your child's school district.

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Oct 22, 2008

That education is badly performed and the name of the rocks and critters are useless I agree.
But the modalities of how different types of rock or living beings form is very important to open one's mind, to understand how non-trivial things (and in general, our world) work.
Most kids have just narrow horizons, seeing a few more different things would help their thinking skills.

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Oct 21, 2008
Weird. I always resented classes like history, literature, government and "social science" (which is -- let's face it -- a soft science at best and mere speculation at worst). There doesn't appear to be much economic value to various art appreciation classes, either.

If we can dump all of the humanities, rhetoric, math, and science, maybe we'd have the ideal educational system.

It doesn't bother me so much when people don't know calculus, trigonometry, algebra and geometry. However, I find it fairly distasteful that I know SO MANY adults who "just don't understand" fractions, percentages, and similar low-level math concepts. That's just pathetic. Likewise for simple science and biology topics. It irritates the hell out of me that people don't know the difference between viruses and bacteria, and don't understand how those relate (i.e. they don't!) to genetic disorders or poisons. Let alone simple chemistry concepts like elements vs molecules, or simple physics.

Oct 21, 2008
you're too clever to underestimate the importance of mathematics so i assume you're trolling.

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Oct 21, 2008
Math and science are necessary to every person in the work force. They teach problem solving, and nearly every economic success in the USA is about solving a problem. At engineering school I had to take an intro to mechanical engineering class. I was stoked to because it was going to include instruction on some fun software and there was going to be a group design project. The first thing the Professor taught, and rightfully so, was that engineering is a business process and the projects would be dictated to us by a fundamental "need" driven by a customers "problem". He then taught us about criteria and constraints and all sorts of real world facts. I ended up designing a really cool corn husking machine.

Science teaches the scientific problem solving method "PHEOC" (problem,hypothesis,experiment,observation,conclusion). This is much like what is done by almost any professional occupation throughout the country. A chef wants to make his pasta tastier, he thinks garlic will help, he tries a small batch, he tastes it, and decides if he likes it better. No different than PHEOC. A marketing guru wants to know were to sell his excess beer, he thinks Germany, sends some to a select number of German stores, He observes the sales and decides if his company should set up a distributorship there. Scientific problem solving is everywhere is everywhere.

Much is the same with math, you learn to separate out the necessary from whats not in the dreaded story problems.

The world needs more problem solving based education. While liberal arts education is also a must, it helps us to communicate and understand the human nature of the world around us, problem solving has many more practical and beneficial applications.

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Oct 21, 2008
One of my (retired) teacher friends recently showed me an article (a clipping, so I don't have a link). There is a high school in Texas that has the highest number of scholar awards, and it is being denied money next school year because it has failed in No Child Left Behind metrics.

Yeah. Something is messed up.

Oct 21, 2008
One of my (retired) teacher friends recently showed me an article (a clipping, so I don't have a link). There is a high school in Texas that has the highest number of scholar awards, and it is being denied money next school year because it has failed in No Child Left Behind metrics.

Yeah. Something is messed up.

-1
Oct 21, 2008
It's not just school - I'm doing a BSc in Computer Science and Information Management.

One of the subjects we learn is "Computer Organization " - basically how computers make use of memory addressing, and the different principles about how its handled. I somehow don't see myself writing my own operating system anytime soon?

Another is Advanced Data Structures. About 10% of what we learn is applied in programming today (searches and sorts and the STL), the rest is "good for computer people to know about". The latter is what was applied in the 70's and 80's (i.e. learned by our lecturers) and is no longer relevant and would be bad practice to use. We spend 4 months on recursion, and at the end we're told that it's a great idea but actually we should always use an iterative structure.

With so MUCH to learn about computers today, and so many advanced niche applied fields of computer science available, why are we wasting thousands of hours on learning outdated theoretical information? Students who have a personal interest in the History of Computer theory should study this, let the rest of us learn advanced Java, Linux, Delphi and Oracle - the skills that seem to appear in every job requirement.

Oct 21, 2008
Wow, Scott. Maybe tomorrow you can find a way to insult the remaining 10% of your readers, too.

Oct 21, 2008
The thing about testing math and science is these subjects transcend culture and language. No matter the names you refer to them as, two apples and two apples makes four apples. Unless of course you happen to be trading in apple derivatives, in which case two apples equals the ability to purchase four apples at some point in the future and the other two apples are loaned out to an orange farm to offset risk so they can lend out oranges they have not yet grown to a juice company. Then a cold snap hits, the orange crop fails, your apples get eaten by the orange farmers and we all drink the kool aid instead.

Oct 21, 2008
Yeah, math and science are totally irrelevant. So we're filled with a country full of 20 year olds who can wax eloquent on a Keats poem or tell you all about Jacques Derrida's thoughts on the metaphysical, but who can't figure how much a 15% off pair of khakis at the Gap is going to cost them.

My wife teaches Trig at a Big Ten University. The number of students that are hoping to become nurses, pharmacists, and other professional careers who can't even add fractions -- something we were supposed to learn in about the fifth grade -- is astonishing.

(This HAS to be a DMD post.)

Oct 21, 2008
With regard to "most of what they learn in math and science is completely useless":

That is probably true for the majority of people: i.e. those people who are not mathematicians or scientists. I'm a video game developer and a few weeks ago when I was working on a targeting system I realized that the problem I was solving was exactly the same as one of those exercises along the lines of "Train A leaves station P going x !\$%*! per hour and train B leaves station Q...". So for anyone who's ever sat in a math class and wondered how the heck that is ever going to be relevant to their lives: Sorry, that one was for me.

I don't think our education systems are perfect by any means, but I think the prevailing idea of giving everybody a broad basis of knowledge is a good one. As much as I disliked them at the time, I do think I am better off for having a certain amount of literature and language education, for example. It would be great if we could teach kids the useful "essences" of subjects, without having to bog them down in all the mind-numbing detail, but as far as I'm aware, no one has quite figured out how to do that yet.

Oct 21, 2008

I did not intend at all to provide to you guys a lecture on racism. And: You are absolutely right about the relationship between Germans and Turkish immigrants, although this has improved in the last couple of years imho. In fact, a huge step into the right direction was the football world championship in 2006, where Turkish immigrants were running around with German flags like crazy :-)

Hey, and if something's not working out well in Germany, I'm still allowed to criticize when the same happens somewhere else, am I?

Ok, this is getting a little bit off-topic...

Oct 21, 2008
I believe learning Math and science in school is not usless. Eventhough most of the things you learn in school doesn't apply to daily life, the deeper lessons are learning HOW TO THINK and HOW TO SOLVE problems.

The lessons you learn in school helps you look at the world and ask "WHY", instead of letting someone else tells you that is the way it is.

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Oct 21, 2008
I don't know how you can target maths and science as being a useless and misleading statistic to follow. What other subject could you choose? Humanities? English (or whatever the local language is)? Anything other than maths and science seems pretty subjective to me and influenced by the local/national culture and the teachers. I would look to maths and science as the best subjects to make cross-country comparisons.

Anyway, I would be really unimpressed if Scott considered what kids learn in maths and science as completely useless. Of course kids don't want to learn it... I'm only getting it now 10 years later what the benefit is. I completely agree with csoltenborn and the use of maths is in the abstraction and the application to critical thought. Even algebra and calculus are applicable to so many every day things, we just don't apply it exactly as we did in class. Its the thought processes.

If we anything more in the world right now, it is the need for logical and critical reasoning.

I would say that this view that looks to the immediate use of the knowledge that kids learn at school is one of the reasons (other than a lack of funding) that music as a subject is endangered. Not only do people who are good at maths do better at music, but I'm pretty sure that plating and reading music helps your mathematical skills and all that comes with it.

And headhunt23: way to go with the massive generalisations.

Oct 21, 2008
Many of those who've posted comments here suggest that we need to teach kids to learn to love learning. I think that's a distortion of reality. My two children used to imitate everything their mother and I did. They wanted to learn how to do everything their parents, grandparents, and friends did. Anyone who's raised kids knows that kids naturally love learning before they get to school -- let me repeat that: before they get to school. We need to stop teaching kids to hate learning. One way to do that is to stop insisting that all kids learn the same things. Not everyone is suited to do all jobs. We are not all equal, neither in ability nor in interest. But we all can learn how to do things that interest us and benefit both us as individuals and us as a society. One problem, as some here have mentioned, is that too many Americans want to learn how to become rich and famous athletes and entertainers. They're not interested in learning how to do anything useful, just in becoming rich and famous.

Then, too, there is the fact that America doesn't respect anyone who knows anything -- as two George Witless Bush administrations have shown the world; America respects money and power and privilege -- except, of course, when they need someone to do something useful for them. What good is a singer or a basketball player who can slam-dunk when the car won't start or the computer won't boot or the toilet overflows? And the people who fix your car, computer, and toilet have to be good at analytical thinking ("thinking" -- there, I've said it) so that they can analyze why there's a problem and what the best way to solve it is. Even people who work primarily with their hands have to use their brains to do mental work before they lay hands on the disabled things they want to fix and shout "Heal!" and collect their \$200.

In my 36 years as a high school and university teacher in the USA, Japan, and Taiwan, I've noticed that only about ten or twenty percent of the students in every class are interested in learning. The rest expect their passing grades based on attendance and having paid their tuition, which makes them customers in the education boutiques they attend, and the customer is always right when they can pay for what they want.

I doubt that the rankings you refer to, Scott, are worth the paper they're printed on. And having spent most of my teaching like here in Far East Asia, where students can do much more complex math than American students can, doesn't mean that they know anything else about the real world. Most of the university students I've talked to here over the past twenty-five years know nothing about anything that they don't have to memorize (and then quickly forget) for the next regurgitation tests they are all required to take. And most of them, while they do have to learn how to use their memorized formulas to arrive at the correct answers to complex math problems in 2-minute-mile time, don't understand the math they use. My younger son is in Taiwan's education system at the moment. He's a 7th-grader. His teachers aren't bad people, but they are required to teach to the test and churn out the material so that all students everywhere can be on the same page at the same time so that they can all take the same tests at the same time and all pass with scores of 90 or better. That doesn't happen, of course, but that's what the Ministry of Education wants. They've had the "no child left behind" concept here for much longer than their American counterparts. School here is boring because it's focused on memorizing and regurgitating useless facts that are easy to teach and test in an "objective" format (multiple choice or fill in the blank). As in my American classes, only the most motivated and interested and intelligent students here do well in academically oriented subjects in school. Either they have a personal passion for learning that somehow hasn't been extinguished by the educational machine, or they have parents who have supported their innate desire to learn everything they can about the world they live in and what interests them in particular.

The world is changing so fast these days that it's impossible for teachers and parents to know specifically what students need to learn. But many posters have pointed out that they need to learn how to think critically, do research, have enough background in many everyday fields to be able to figure out what other people are talking about, want to contribute to the general good of they society they live in, want to be rewarded for their hard work instead of for their simply being a pustule on the epidermis of society, and derive satisfaction from doing well a job worth doing.

Oct 21, 2008
No, the average grad efor things like history and geography are the most meaningless. I was in a conversation where people were having a contest to name all of the state capitals and I realised just how much worthless stuff we were taught in school. I can name all of the presidents in order but to what end? If I wanted to know who the 17th president was, I could just look it up online and be done with it. Children should be taught to memorize things, it's useful but there have got to be better things to memorize than state capitals and former presidents.

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