Comfortable with our stupid children

Researchers have found that generic American parents, faced with a child who can’t do math or science, will say “Don’t worry, Johnny, because you have so many other talents.” Asian parents, supposedly, will say “Since you aren’t apparently naturally gifted at math or science you’ll have to study extra hard in these areas,” and not stop nagging until the kid is doing well.

This evening I encountered a woman talking about her kids. “They’re just not numbers people. I tell them it doesn’t matter if they can’t do math or work with numbers because we’re English and Social Studies people.”

[The mother who was speaking has an administrative job with a company contracting to the government of Massachusetts and her innumeracy has not, as far as she knows, hindered her ability to earn a living.]

19 thoughts on “Comfortable with our stupid children

  1. Back when I was in high school we had some elective choices in our senior year. I ppted out of yet another year of French and took philosophy instead.

    Some of the folks who were weaker in math were considering more history in place of calculus. Our history teacher told them in no uncertain terms that this was the dumbest thing that they could do. One can backfill knowledge of most subjects later in life with some trips to the bookstore. But math…not so much. More importantly, nurturing the quantitative mind, she said, would pay dividends for a lifetime.

    Very wise words, indeed.

  2. Whether we like it or not, there will be some sort of bell curve and half of the kids are going to be below average (ok below median but same difference). In the UK they used to have a system where which side of average you were was decided age 11 and education diverged from there.

    It is always possible to teach to the tests, grade on curves and other statistical stunts to get desired outcomes without really improving the underlying understanding. (Asian education systems are renowned for focusing on memorization. The American system seems to focus a lot on multiple choice.)

    I don’t have a proven system, but I would suggest something where you have to take multiple subjects such as math, first and second languages, art/music, social sciences and failing any fails you as a whole, with an expectation that you would do really well in at least half of the subjects.

  3. There was an interesting article about a related study in the NYT last October which found that “while many girls have exceptional talent in math — the talent to become top math researchers, scientists and engineers — they are rarely identified in the United States. A major reason, according to the study, is that American culture does not highly value talent in math, and so discourages girls — and boys, for that matter — from excelling in the field.”

    Here’s the url to the times article:

  4. Today the enabler is technology. Mastering the fundamentals is not as pressing as it used to be in the old fashoned days, unless you aspire to excel – for whatever goals that drives you. Otherwise all seem to be able to go on pretty well living decent lives. Remember, the world does not need so many skilled or experts, as all this can be copy+paste from factories today.

    The downside? You see good (as in intelligent?) people buried underneath the social hierarchy. The better equipped (social skills) succeeded just by merely practicing the gift of gab without sweating much over thick texts.

  5. Please remember this encounter when you contrast charter school performance to regular public school performance. Do you think this mother would tend to put forth the effort to send her children to a charter school? Even if the children did miraculously find themselves attending a charter school for a time, what do you think would happen if they started doing poorly in mathematics and science at the charter school? Chances are good that at that point it’s back to the regular public school, because maybe the charter school is “geared too much to numbers people.” Dedicated teachers working WITH parental support (and vise versa) can teach just about anyone. Teachers working WITHOUT parental support (nagging?) are severely handicapped.

  6. So True. I remember my Mom teaching me math for 2 hours a day after school until I got better at it and developed an ability. Parental involvement and hard work is sometimes necessary during formative years.

  7. Andy: I’m not sure how the original posting relates to the issue of charter versus public schools. The woman I talked with seemed like an excellent mother who has invested nearly all of her energy and abilities in child-rearing ever since her first kid was born. A school teacher who said “I can’t teach this kid because his/her mother isn’t supportive” would be unlikely to find many kids who could be taught effectively.

    [This is still off-topic, but it gets back to the issue of public schools excusing the fact that about half of their students graduate with skills inadequate to compete in a globalized workforce. The schools say “We only had these kids for 6 hours/day for 12 years. Their parents messed them up. Give us another few $billion.” Meanwhile the only kids who get a decent education are the ones who basically could have educated themselves, if given a library and Internet connection.]

  8. Saying that some people can do without decent mathematical education means that they can do without proper understanding of their own finances. As long as money is counted maths matters for that reason alone.

    On top of that, being properly educated in maths and sciences will give a young person alway more choices in life. I’d rather have skills I will not need than need skills I was not given!

    Personally, I do find maths difficult and I had to work quite hard to understand the bit I do (poor teaching did not help); that does not mean I should not try to understand as much maths as I can just because I have to work at it. Teaching kids to accept the first hurdle as the final limit seems to be misguided.

  9. It’s still worth considering whether the American aversion to math is rational. Math is, as the barbie doll infamously said, hard.

    An academically but not mathematically inclined young American can go ahead and skip that calculus class, major in humanities or social science, and go to law school. It’ll be easier to get a high GPA in college as a sociology major than as a chemical engineering major, and it won’t interfere with the partying schedule. The LSAT requires no math, and our smart, academically inclined student will most likely get into a good law school.

    She won’t be a patent lawyer, of course, but that’s not a big problem She can still start at $160,000 at a top law firm in New York, a little less in other big cities. That’ll easily beat her fellow classmates who lived in the labs in the basement of the chem building for four years.

    Medicine and MBA programs do require a bit more science and math, but nothing on the level of an engineering degree. Most colleges have an easy track calculus and physics for life science or econ majors, and this often suffices for Med school. You can certainly go to MBA programs without calculus.

    Meanwhile, the ABA and AMA do a very good job of protecting the jobs of Americans. The recent JD grad will not be competing with lawyers from around the world for that entry level job on anywhere near the level that our young engineer will be.

    I certainly think you expand your options by studying more math, but the truth is, there are a lot of lucrative paths in the US that don’t require it. Even it it’s a good thing to have in your bag, a lot of students (smart, academically inclined ones) may have just concluded that it isn’t worth the effort.

  10. Many jobs that require math and science skills are being outsourced to China or India, so the importance of getting a good math education is less important. To be a lawyer, actor, professional athlete, stock broker (required some math skills in the past but not in the last couple of years) or a government employee you may need basic math skills (add, subtract, multiply, divide, and maybe percentages), no where near the level of an engineer or a scientist. If you have children that are smart, but not math inclined, they can get a bachelor of arts and then go to law school and financially do much better than most engineers. In the short term we can just sit back and do the marketing of the products designed and made in asia, but in the long term the standard of living will suffer, unfortunately there seems to be no leadership in this area.

  11. The funny thing is I grew up in a time and a place where the exact opposite happened to many children. For many reasons, there was a heavy emphasis on the exact sciences (math and physics in particular) so I and a lot of my school mates ended up doing pretty well in these subjects. However, the study of history, literature, political science etc was so heavily perverted by the political regime of the time (communist) that it was really challenging for most kids to enjoy it.

    The result? Many of the people who grew up during that time have at least some level of difficulty expressing ideas in a logical, concise and fluent fashion, both verbally and, especially, in writing. Most of these people can function in the society so I suppose this proves you don’t need these skills either, to survive. I often find myself in inferiority, especially in US, because my social skills are not up to the level of others and I’m constantly trying to improve them. But it’s not as easy as “going to a bookstore” as someone mentioned earlier on this thread.

  12. Folks: Remember that we’re talking about American public schools here, where standards are set ridiculously low. Doing well in “math” does not mean advancing the state of the art in algebraic topology. Doing well in “English” means generally an ability to read and write. Any child of average intelligence, given good instruction (possibly tailored to that individual), ought to be able to exceed these standards.

  13. The use of ‘stupid’ may tell a lot here as the usage is not necessarily correct. What is stupid to me is that the set of all those with numeracy is screwing up the world and have done more damage than those who are considered without any talent.

    It’s not just the financial folks either, though we love to pick on the MBAs’ limited worldview.

    There are many ways to know which we need to study and understand. Do we really think that we have the world and nature tamed with our numeric overlays? Well, too many seem to think so. I’ll make that statement and chance the potential barbs of shamanism.

    Don’t get me wrong, numeracy has its place. But, misuse of these tools, as we’ve seen with the growing use of the computer’s abilities, is about the dumbest thing that we can do.

    Let me propose that a non-elite science is going to emerge, partly enabled by the web. Yes, thanks to those with numeracy and their prowess, the platform to lift awareness of other cognitive ways is poking its head around the curtain.

    Methinks that the worldview associated with this emergence will be much more palatable to the earth and its need for sustainable use by those it carries through space time than any proposed so far by the numeracy set.

    As a final note, von Neuman is quoted as saying that (paraphrase) mathematics is not to be understood, rather one just gets use to it. Our bane? People taking this instrument far beyond what has a basis; that, folks, is part of the problem that causes so much heartache in the world.

  14. As someone who immigrated to the US, and entered high school as a freshman, (only after 3 months after my arival with almost no English), and my daugther who this past June who just finished her freshman year in a private high school, where she took AP in all of her subjects, I can tell you first hand that math, and all other subjects are very weak in the US, compared to my old country. However, math and all other subjects in the US are more about understanding vs. memorization. In addition, and this is important to me, there is much more creativity in the US vs. back in my old home country. By creativity, I don’t mean by offering arts, and music classes, I mean creativity in the way all subjects are taught and how they are presented.

    So why the US is behind compared to other industrialized nations? My personal experience is, this is due to the lack of discipline and responsibility from the school, the students, and most of all the parents. We live in a country, that has sold itself as the land of opportunity, and that if you work hard, you can make it. Just look at the message our President, and Sotomayor have sent us, and even the vice President — they all came from a lower class.

    All of this is good, but the message is lost with the parents — it’s not being communicated to their children, and not even being expected (I would say demanded) of their children. US parents are handing off the parental responsibility to others, and when things don’t work, they complain and blame the system.

    Personally, I think this will get worse, why? Families in the US are not as tightly bounded as in other nations — the bound is not enough at a parent / children level, it need to also include grandparents, uncle, cousins, neighbors, etc.

    — George

  15. “Asian parents, supposedly, will say ‘Since you aren’t apparently naturally gifted at math or science you’ll have to study extra hard in these areas,’ and not stop nagging until the kid is doing well.”

    Correct. The other frequently heard comment is, “If so-and-so can do it, why can’t you?”

    See Harold Stevenson, “Learning from Asian Schools,” Scientific American, December 1992 (unfortunately not available online, but here’s a summary). Stevenson ran a number of large-scale studies comparing elementary schools in Minneapolis, Chicago, Japan, and Taiwan. Also see Stevenson and Stigler, The Learning Gap.

    Stevenson comments that in East Asian societies, there’s more emphasis on the plasticity of human nature, in particular the idea that ability comes from repetition and hard work. In the US, there’s more emphasis on innate ability or talent. From Stevenson’s obituary in the Washington Post:

    “The Japanese and Chinese believe that people are basically the same and that the difference between success and failure lies in how hard you work,” Dr. Stevenson said in 1987. “Americans give more importance to native ability, so they have less incentive to work hard in school.”

    The findings startled Americans who assumed that mathematics skills, particularly, were connected to genetics or intelligence. Dr. Stevenson found no such link. U.S. students, he said, actually started school with certain advantages, but after they entered grade school, parents turned their children’s education over to the schools while Asian parents continued to be involved with the children’s homework and tutoring. Parents in the United States also were more easily satisfied with the quality of education than were Asian parents, he found.

  16. A real story. My wife has a college diploma in China. She works as an office clerk in Canada now. (I believe she can get a better job once she overcome the English language barrier.) One of the tasks she and her colleagues perform daily is that, weight an outgoing parcel, and based on the weight, put on the right amount of postage. For parcels under 100 grams, you press a machine once to get the right postage. For parcels 100-200 grams, you press twice. And press one time for each additional 100 grams, so on and so forth. Say, a parcel weights 385g, you should press 4 times. My wife thinks this is so easy and she can do it without even thinking about it. To her astonishment, many of her coworkers needs a calculator for the task. 385 grams? 385/100=3.85, 3.85<4, so press 4 times! Her coworkers finished high school and some even went to college too.

  17. I’m old enough to remember when you made a purchase at a store and you were due some change, the clerk would have to calculate this. Now, of course, the change is automatically figured. Still, I’ve encountered folks (young and old) who can’t even count the change back accurately.

    I know parents that have moved their children from school to school because little Johnny just wasn’t being taught the “right way”. Education in any subject requires discipline, and discipline starts at home. While comprehension of varying subjects occurs on different levels for each individual, that’s no reason to “excuse” a poor effort on the more difficult ones.

    Why our we increasingly becoming a dumbed-down nation? Could it be because that that’s what our government wants?

    See this link:

  18. I believe we have a couple of issues to deal with. First, to use a cliche’ When you scatter your fire you don’t get heat. Meaning our public school system is now teaching so many non-core subjects that they don’t devote the time or resource necessary to teach the basics. Second, our teachers have been prompted to teach to tests, specific knowledge designed to pass tests. This does not make good students or knowledgeable students it teaches them to take test. If we were to institute curricula that approached learning from a real life problem, children would understand the ‘why,’ ‘what,’ ‘how,’ and ‘where’ of applying their math skills and really appreciate development of them. This may be an oversimplification but in practice we all know this is true. In countries like Finland and New Zeland where their children are leading the world, the classroom practice is to simply and use real world application to teach.

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