Please, Stop Using Math as Your Bad Example

Ryan Davis

It’s inevitable.  Every time. I know it’s coming.  I’m listening to a speaker or reading an article about the need for education to make seismic shifts to adapt to changes in society and culture.  I’m nodding along in agreement, but I can feel it about to happen. There’s the call for relevance – yes… the need for student centered – yes… but then… “and we’re still teaching the Pythagorean Theorem.”  

There it is – without fail – the “mathematical anecdote”: a piece of content from math class cited as proof that schools are irrelevant or outdated (e.g. ‘they don’t teach kids taxes, but they spend weeks on systems of equations’ or ‘I had to memorize the quadratic formula, but never…’).  Even owning my own bias and passion for the discipline of mathematics, I would still wager that mathematics is used disproportionately as a negative example in such contexts. It’s like the shoe that keeps dropping. I usually agree with the bigger point being made, but the trope of the “mathematical anecdote” isn’t helping any of us. 

In fairness, I’ll start by acknowledging the culpability of mathematics educators in the overuse of the “mathematical anecdote.”  In general, we have held tighter to our cannon of formulas and skills than other disciplines, especially at the secondary level. We’ve moved perhaps more quickly than other subjects to gamify the content, create flashy activities, and dissect a complex curriculum into discrete skills that look good on administrative checklists.  We’re more likely to overly scaffold work so that student products have forms and symbols that look complex to outside observers, but do not require true depth of thought. We’re more likely to support systems of oppression through test-prep, than we are to acknowledge and advocate against the use of our discipline (even if a bastardized version of it) as a gatekeeper. 

Such moves garner mathematics educators short term praise and recognition that often elevate our stature within the school community but fail to make more transformative shifts, thus failing in any substantive way to address the specific criticism of the “mathematical anecdote.”  Those shortcomings acknowledged, the “mathematical anecdote” is most often used to make a broader point about the state of education as whole. In this, however, the “mathematical anecdote” actually undercuts its own intent of articulating a more transformative vision for schools, and should thus be abandoned.  

The “mathematical anecdote” is usually received with claps or nods of affirmation.  But, such responses are more likely reflections of cultural biases against math or personal anxieties about mathematics than they are positive reactions to a visionary framing of what schools could be. The “mathematical anecdote” serves more to reinforce a shared devaluing mathematics than to inspire support for new ideas.  In other words, it’s not helping make the right point.

Moreover, the “mathematical anecdote” typically affirms a utilitarian epistemology that undermines the deeper value of schools.  It corroborates a belief that the value of knowledge should be judged solely on its ability to produce something, usually for commercial or economic gain.  Yet, the enduring power of educations lies in its ability to inspire awe and wonder, to cultivate beauty in the spirit and the mind, and to unite and empower community.  Schools are not conveyor belts for producing workers, but rather igniters of passions so students can build a world better than we can imagine. The rhetoric of the “mathematical anecdote” obscures this more powerful and important view of schools.

Such rhetoric also reinforces negative conceptions about learning and evokes harmful power dynamics.  The “mathematical anecdote” is usually laced with technical jargon and a tone implying that mathematics is a rarefied subject, accessible only to a select few.  As educators, we should be evangelists for learning not dismissive of certain disciplines or affirming of their inaccessibility.

Most importantly, the “mathematical anecdote” belies the real root of the problem.  It implies that schools have simply identified the wrong body of knowledge to transmit to students, which can be addressed by simply identifying the “right” set of facts and skills to teach.  Of course, that immediately sets up an infinite game of catch up in which schools will always be behind. Actual transformation requires deeper, structural shifts away from a content-transmission model of education and toward empowering pedagogies that begin with students and communities. 

Of course, the point the “mathematical anecdote” seeks to make must still be made, and substituting with examples from other contents would only pose the exact same problems.  So, if you must cite an example, some alternatives:

  • Why are we still organizing days by a rigid bell schedule when we know learning doesn’t happen at or with in a predetermined time slot?
  • Why do we still divide coursework into content areas when we know that jobs and citizenship require an intersectional understanding of the world?
  • Why do our systems and policies still prioritize a content-transmission model of education when such a model is the least empowering to students and the most irrelevant in a digital age? 
  • Why are testing and grading still so central to our assessment of students when their limitations are almost universally acknowledged?

Admittedly, these pack less of a punch. But, they pack the right punch.  In “Don’t Think of An Elephant,” George Lakoff described how shared metaphors actually reinforce beliefs, even when we think we are explicitly negating them.  The use of the “mathematical anecdote” only reinforces traditional and outdated metaphors about schools. Mathematics educators (as all contents) certainly have work to do addressing the more specific critique of how our discipline is currently enacted in schools.  But, we are all in this together and to build a more transformative metaphor for what schools can be, we all have to start by removing the “mathematical anecdote” from our rhetoric. 

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