345. Do You Measure Up?

if-youI keep an eye on who reads this blog. Most of the people who like or follow are young, at least from my viewpoint.

I know that most of you aren’t teachers, aren’t in school (unless it’s college), and don’t have kids in school yet. I also know that most of my own friends, including my teacher friends, are uncomfortable with math or with measurement, and many aren’t comfortable with either. That’s really too bad, because they’re useful and fun. Honest.

Math isn’t that hard, if you approach it right. Truly.

What’s the secret? I’ll tell you further down the post.

Even those who are good at one kind of math are likely to come up short when faced with a different kind. Give a carpenter a problem in double entry bookkeeping and he would probably be lost. Ask an accountant to solve . . .

                5 feet  1 1/8 inches   minus   2 feet  3  7/16 inches

. . . and he probably wouldn’t know where to start, while carpenters do this kind of math a hundred times a day. Or they use workarounds. A carpenter might walk up to an eight foot 2 x 4, mark out 5 feet  1 1/8 inches with his tape measure, then mark out 2 feet  3  7/16 inches from the same starting point, then measure between the two marks he just made. 2 feet  9  11/16 inches. Easy, and no logarithms were injured in the making of this “calculation”.

Ask a math teacher to hand you a piece of five-quarter lumber and he will probably just stare at you.

Ask an auto mechanic why he glanced at a nut, picked up a 9/16 inch wrench, and knew it would fit. Answer: because he has a solid visual knowledge of sizes from doing the same chore ten-thousand times.

I took math through college calculus and I’m a pretty good craftsman. I’ve built furniture and musical instruments, both of which require accurate measurement. I’ve taught math now and again for three decades. But I couldn’t calculate an elliptical orbit and I couldn’t balance the books on a hot dog stand.

That secret I told you about? Here it is — everybody needs math, but not everybody needs the same math. And not everybody needs the same amount of math.

It is as pointless to teach an auto mechanic or a home-ec teacher calculus (unless they just like math and want it for their own interest) as it would be to teach a NASA scientist that 2-9-3+ means two feet, nine inches, 3/8 inches, and an unspecified little bit more, to a traditional boat builder.


Math teaching is often excellent, but it works under the burden of a basic error. The march from simpler to more complex math in our schools moves at a pace that only the brightest can manage, and aims toward reaches of higher math that only a small percentage could master or will ever use.

If you put the truth of this ambition on a bumper sticker, it would read:

Everybody needs to be a nuclear scientist,
and if you can’t cut the math,
you aren’t trying hard enough.

Both of these assertions are untrue, but they rule our math programs. I saw this all the time as I taught science. My students could not confidently and accurately add, subtract, multiply, or divide, even though they were — by state law — all enrolled in eighth grade algebra.

Their math teachers were not allowed to help them. They were required — again, by state law — to teach at grade level. That is, to teach algebra only.

They were not allowed to remediate. If they did, they were scolded by those who came in to evaluate our school.

I remediated, in science class, where the proctors of compliance would never know. Some years my student’s skill levels were so low that I actually spent several weeks teaching the processes, mostly long division, as I would have taught a math class. Most years, however, my math teaching was science in disguise; or was my science teaching math in disguise?

Were my students stupid? No.

Were the math teachers stupid? No.

Were the ones who devised the math plan stupid? ———- It would be so satisfying to say yes, but the opposite is true. They were the overachievers who never misplaced a decimal. They were putting in place a plan they would have done well in, when they were children. But that plan doesn’t work for the other 90% who suffer under it.


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