April is Math Awareness Month, and although it’s now May, I’m always fascinated by math and how it’s taught in the U.S.–in such a way that few Americans are skilled in the subject.
Yet math competence is rewarded handsomely: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics as reported by MarketWatch, math is not only where the jobs are—it’s where the high paying jobs are: “The median annual wage for those in mathematical science jobs was $76,270 in 2012, more than double the median wage of $34,750 for all occupations.”
Sean Nank, Ph.D., is a professor at the American College of Education and an expert on the teaching of mathematics. He believes teachers should “rethink how we portray mathematics to students to develop a balance between conceptual aspects, procedural skills, and application.” Nank and I talked by e-mail. Our conversation is edited and condensed below.
Black Enterprise: Why is math awareness important?
Sean Nank: Math awareness to me means two things. The first is having an awareness of mathematics in our daily lives: when we interact, the cadence of our conversations, patterns in nature, predictions, logical reasoning, symmetrical beauty, music, movement, dance… the list goes on.
The second is having an awareness of the importance of mathematics education. Without an acknowledgment of this importance, everything in the prior paragraph is glossed over or missed entirely.
BE: Why are math skills so empowering?
SN: We as educators start segregating students from an early age into the “smart” students and the ones we deem as not successful in school. Mathematics is the primary gatekeeper. We view and judge people as early as Pre-K as being “good” students based largely on their mathematical skills. We, unfortunately, track students according to their mathematical abilities, and some of these tracks almost guarantee that students will not be successful.
BE: Americans stink at math. How can we get better?
SN: We can help students with mathematics by helping teachers with mathematics. All the courses I teach at ACE have strong components of activities and assignments teachers can bring into their classroom the very next day.
Within the mathematics classroom, the most influential shift we as educators could make is finding a balance between conceptual understanding, procedural skills, and application. If our curricula emphasize one of these over the others, then we will not be better at mathematics. Usually, conceptual aspects of mathematics are missing or systematically removed from existing curricula. If we embrace a conceptual outlook, students will not only get better, they will see mathematics for what it really is.
BE: Low numeracy skills are hobbling us as a nation. Your thoughts?
SN: Numeracy skills trace back to our first interactions with numbers, which by and large have been memorization. Speed tests that require students to demonstrate their ability to memorize are still prevalent at all levels of mathematics, especially in K-5 education. Realizing that memorization is not indicative of numeracy skills and changing the pedagogical strategies from memorization to pattern recognition while composing and decomposing numbers would help tremendously. Also, get rid of competition in early math classes as these tend to favor male students over female and have little to do with students’ mathematical understanding.
BE: Are elite math competitions an answer?
SN: Math competitions are part of the problem. There are collaborative components built into our classrooms and assignments at ACE. This helps teachers’ learning but it also reinforces that students often benefit more from collaboration than competition.