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Why Nate Silver Can Save Math Education in America

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Ian Hill/Thinkstock/Penguin

By Nikhil Goyal

Call it "The Triumph of Nerds." Poll statisticians have risen to rock star status. One of the most famous is New York Times' wunderkind Nate Silver -- or as Jon Stewart put it, "Lord and god of the algorithm." He may be best known for predicting the 44th president, but Silver could be the one man who can save mathematics education in America.

Silver, who first gained notoriety for forecasting the performance of Major League Baseball players and for correctly predicted the winner of 49 of 50 states in the 2008 election, can save the tattered reputation of math subjects.

For students across the country, there's clearly an engagement deficit in the subject. Paul Lockhart, a math teacher in New York, writes in A Mathematician's Lament [PDF] that if he had to design a system for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, he couldn’t possible do a better job than is currently being done. He explains that he simply wouldn’t have the “imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.”

Across the land, kids hate math. You can hear it in their constant groans and see it in their deranged faces. They ask their teachers, "When am I ever going to use this in life?" On most occasions, they never will. Even President Obama agrees. He recently said on the Tonight Show, "The math stuff I was fine with until seventh grade. Malia is now a freshmen in high school and I'm pretty lost. It's tough." And no wonder -- the system is suffering from a tragic case of nostalgia. The origins of the current curriculum draw back to 1892 when the Committee of Ten hashed out a standard curriculum, which would eventually be adopted almost unanimously by schools.

As a result, the potential to love and embrace math is being squandered -- perhaps even the future of potential Nate Silvers and Nobel Laureates. As students progress from grade to grade, many start losing interest in math.


There are lots of reasons for this. In the current system, students' confidence in their math abilities becomes undermined, according to a Duke University study. Math is taught as computation rather than a means of exploration and discovery. Instead of engaging in meaningful problems and learning in depth rather than breadth, kids are assigned frivolous, repetitive problems. And finally, the way math is generally taught has no relevance to real life. School has become a practice of learning tricks for the test one week and forgetting the next. In elementary schools, kids come to understand that they're expected to follow directions, fill out worksheets, and master a set of concepts.

Our process of transferring from subject to subject in math is also broken. The curriculum pyramid is founded on arithmetic and algebra, all building up to one subject -- at the top of the pyramid is calculus. While mathematicians, engineers, physicists, and particular scientists use calculus in meaningful ways, in their day-to-day lives, most people do not. Ironically, M.I.T. graduates, who are trained in science and mathematics, said in a survey regarding their daily use of math that most use nothing more than arithmetic, statistics, and probability.

Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford in a New York Times Op-Ed summed it up nicely: "Imagine replacing the sequence of algebra, geometry and calculus with a sequence of finance, data and basic engineering. In the data course, students would gather their own data sets and learn how, in fields as diverse as sports and medicine, larger samples give better estimates of averages." Clifford Konold, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, counted data displays in The New York Times and found that in 1972, there were four graphs or tables in 10 consecutive weekday editions, excluding the sports and business sections. There were eight in 1982 and 44 in 1992. Next year, he could find more than 100. His conclusion: statistical reasoning is an indispensable skill.

Fortunately, many universities are scrambling to teach statistics and probability, especially through sports. In one class at James Madison University, students used the example of Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns and free throws to learn the probability of coin tosses. Last year's hit film Moneyball popularized the power of probability from predicting division standings to on-base percentages.

Just weeks after the election, Nate Silver's Triumph of the Nerds, his renowned legacy and dedication to numbers, has the potential to telegraph an important message to kids: It's O.K. to be a math nerd. Numbers can actually mean something in the grand scheme of things. We need more people who can number crunch and predict and prize math.

If parents and teachers use Silver's groundbreaking work to talk to young people about civics, polls, statistics, and numbers, the power and beauty of mathematics, kids can experience this fascinating subject could be experienced in a whole new way.

Nikhil Goyal is a senior at Syosset High School in Woodbury, New York, and the author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School.

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