Protractors and Math Phobia

May 6, 2015

A good friend has children in sixth grade at a Manhattan public school, where they recently administered statewide standardized tests. Just before the math section, the teacher handed out protractors as necessary tools, whereupon several of the students burst into tears, because they had never seen a protractor. (If you don’t know what a protractor is, look it up – perhaps it will bring back memories.)

This story troubled me on a number of levels:

  • If knowing how to use a protractor is a skill so critical as to be included in a standardized math test, why had students in this school never seen one?
  • If lots of sixth-graders in New York have never seen a protractor, whose idea was it to make it required equipment on a statewide test?
  • The children’s tension had to come from somewhere. On the presumption that this is one of those tests that’s as much about evaluating the teachers as the students, had the teacher passed on to the students a level of anxiety that contributed to the children’s tears?

But as valid as these questions are, that’s not why I’m writing this post. I strongly doubt whether children who had never heard of Bosnia, or Hemingway, or the legislative branch, would have shed any tears about questions mentioning those terms. It saddens me that math is seen as a technical discipline that you have to know how to do, and that’s immensely difficult to do. At the sixth-grade level, math is largely just a language for describing complex situations. If more parents and teachers saw it that way, more children would appreciate it and fewer would turn away from the subject completely at an early age.

Few of us can write like Fitzgerald or speak like Hemingway, but that doesn’t prevent us from writing stuff and speaking up. And you don’t have to be Carl Friedrich Gauss or John Nash to comprehend the numerical information that is important in our daily lives.

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people to focus on making numbers understandable.  I welcome your feedback and your favorite examples.  Follow me on twitter at @RandallBolten.

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