One of the things that I love about living in the Twin Cities is our community education program. You want to learn to swim? There are classes. You want to learn to speak a different language? Check. Need to learn how to write a will? Check. A class on Czech Kolaches? There are more than one. Hundreds of classes are available. Amongst the ads for cooking and gardening and Spanish classes, I saw the following course description.
I have mixed feelings about this. My first reaction is that I'm happy that this class exists for people who want to improve their math skills. However, the wording troubles me. Literacy training is approached in a different way than mathematics. Many who are illiterate are afraid to admit it, whereas a fear of, or self-proclaimed incompetence in, mathematics can be joked about. It's almost cool to talk about how bad you are at math.
At first it may seem that joking about being afraid of math, or how hard math is, is harmless. Remember "Math class is tough" Barbie? Multiple people had to have thought it was a good idea. It takes more than one person to get a toy to market, so multiple people, people who probably had college degrees complete with math classes, had to have thought that this was the perfect thing to have a kids' toy say. Scary, isn't it? Then I heard the story of a high school student who mentioned that she really liked math until a teacher kept stressing how hard it was. After a while, she began to believe it. Sadly, I suspect that that teacher was using the "this is hard" statement as a friendly lead-in to the lesson. A "we're all in this together, even though it is hard" approach. I wonder if the results would be different if a "this is fun" approach was presented instead.
A few months ago, I posted about how I have a hard time calling something engineering if it doesn't have any explicit math or science in it. A friend, who disagrees with me on this point, pointed out how wonderful it would be if everyone could create things without having to understand the math and science behind them. I agree that giving everyone the tools to create is an important goal. That said, we can't ignore the fact that behind every microprocessor or cool new robotics kit is someone who really understood the math and science. So my goal these days is to figure out how to make the basic math and science that lie beneath the surface as exciting as playing with the cool toys the math and science produced. Parents are urged to read to their kids, and doctors give out books. What would this early intervention look like from a math perspective? We approach reading and writing as something that everyone, with the right training, can do. I really think we need to treat math this way as well. So back to the class. I think it should exist. However, I think we can aim higher than "coping" with everyday math.