The Focus on the Numbers - a guest blog.

Today I would like to introduce a guest blogger, Boston high school student named Haley. Thanks to her teacher, I came across Haley's erudite and stimulating essay that raises interesting questions about our math education and certainly will be of interest to parents, teachers and students.

The Focus on the Numbers

Sitting next to each other in a ninth grade classroom are a boy and a girl. The girl rapidly writes down every word her teacher says, not actually listening, only copying down his exact words, flustered when she cannot remember the last sentence he said. Meanwhile, the boy listens without writing, soon realizing that nothing the teacher is saying interests him whatsoever. So instead, he takes out his workout plan, determining when he should take his next protein shake in order to be prepared for the weight room after school.
The next day tests are handed back. He receives a 59, while she receives a 99. When the bell rings, he throws out the test and makes his way to the weight room for the fourth time that week. Instead of doing homework that night, he researches nutrition information while she memorizes trigonometric identities which she will soon know by heart without understanding what they actually do or mean. He can now explain exactly what a trans fat is and how it affects your body and health, while she can list ten different ways to write the same equation.

But which of the two will have the chance to be accepted into an Ivy League college? Who will have a better chance of making more money as an adult? The one who has no passion, no true comprehension of what she is learning, and is memorizing information which she has no idea how to utilize in her own life. She can remember dates, equations, names, and facts for a few days, maybe weeks, and once the test is over, the process begins anew. After all, as Goethe said, "it's easy to be brilliant when you don't believe in anything" (Edmundson, Why Read?).

We judge these two very differently, very unfairly. The boy has no interest in the curriculum set by the school. Neither does the girl. However, she does it to maintain the reputation as being smart. He does not care whether or not other people know that he is smart. He does what he enjoys and works hard at it. As Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, says in The Insecurity of Freedom, we evaluate the student by his ability to answer questions rather than to understand problems. This boy dedicates himself to becoming stronger, more fit, healthier. He has a passion for it. He loves it. He strives to get better week after week, calculating how he can reach 225 pounds by Friday. But few people respect him for this struggle, few people even acknowledge his dedication.

We have lost sight of what is important. Our values need to be reevaluated. Children are living in a place where passion is not praised unless it will benefit education or their future. The present is lost in this focus on the future. The constant pressure to get good grades leaves children with little time to cultivate themselves, to find things that they enjoy, to dedicate time to their development. Of course, it is important for people to be well-rounded, educated and informed in mathematics, language, history. However, there are ways to teach these things without bluntly forcing it upon children. Simone Weil, a 20th century French philosopher, wrote in her Anthology that slavery is the work without any light from eternity, without poetry, without religion the only incentives are fear and gain. In order to be successful, students must want to do well. It is difficult for them to do things for a future which seems distant. They need support, not fear. They need options, opportunities to learn things that they want to learn, things that interest them. The set curriculums of school systems throughout the country are the major downfall of our education system. How can students be expected to have an interest in subjects that their own teachers show little interest in?

The mission of our education system is in need of reevaluation. Our children need to be given the opportunities and encouragement to find and develop their talents and interests. They are told that it is important to be unique, and that everybody is different. But then why is it that we try to force them all to fit one mold and to focus on the same thing? It is time to stop overlooking the importance of the individual. Remember the words of Socrates: "a man's first obligation is to care for his own inner self, his own soul."

Top image is sadly titled "High School Sucks", it is distributed under Creative Commons license from Flickr

Haley's essay is definitely thought provoking. Feel free to post your comments below.


  1. The girl would be the logical one to be accepted into an Ivy League school and earn more money but in reality the male would be the one who will make more money just because he is a male even though she will have the degree. Statistics show that even though more women attend college and have the GPAs to attend top rated schools and may have the aptitute to pursue degrees that would prepare females for top paying careers(engineering, technology, science and math) the majority of women will settle for the traditional programs becasue they are soicalized to do so, counseled by school counselors and parents to do so, or lack the confidence and support to stick with the non-traditional career paths.

  2. Are these same discrimination battles still being fought? The male is favored, the more attractive students, those who are going to the better schools…, nothing has changed over the last 40 years? Parents either don’t care, or they take their kids out and homeschool them, teachers don’t really know how to teach, textbooks are poorly written, school library books are censored. We have gone through generations since these arguments started. Why with new thinking and new technology, is it still the same? And then there are special ed students, those who are fated to drop out, end up in jail, or go off to fight whatever war is going on at the time. That’s the route I ended up on. I was lucky to have made up for it.

    Is it essential for everyone to go to college, who can afford it, who wants the burden of paying off student loans, what opportunities are there for the average college graduate, or for those who have gone on to graduate school? Is our economy back on track, or are we finding out how far we have fallen behind many other countries?

    Who doesn’t know all this? Who thinks everything can still be done as it has always been done?

  3. Paris on a very cold day

    This is a very difficult problem; the presentation made by the writer adds to the confusion by introducing a gender bias which is irrelevant to the problem.

    Basically, we the elders, do not know what should be taught to young people. More than that, the Elder should not take upon themselves to decide what young people should learn.
    Learning has many components, the first sentence was written as “learning has two components”, which was stupid.

    Learning is partly aiming at a development of the brain. Learning mathematical rules, poems, is probably good for the brain.

    Learning is about understanding the world we inherited and the world we will have to hand over to our children. Is it essential for us to understand the functioning of Ancient Egypt to prepare the Next world, who knows?

    Learning is about making the students aware of the tools that are available. For instance how are you going to get a screw out of a plank if you do not know that there is a tool called a screw driver?

    Learning is mostly about teaching the logics of problem solving. Let us look at a stupid example that has the advantage that it works. We tell the student that an image representing a horse is a log used to identify a Ferrari car. Then we go through the identification process:

    If a car is a Ferrari then it has a logo showing a horse

    If the identification logo is a horse then it is a Ferrari

    So far, nothing dramatic

    Then we get into far warmer water

    We ask the students to identify the situations where these statements could prove to be untrue. This is fun for them as they are quite aware that many logos are not to be believed.

    Anybody can steal a horse logo and stick it on its red car.

    From that we ask them to analyse whether statements such as

    Frenchmen are dirty and undisciplined

    are true and under what conditions we could accept the statement, which unavoidably will introduce the concept of “group”.

    In the world of today, is seems that children learning skills at home with e-learning are doing much better,

    Yet we are reluctant to let then get out of the school system, as it would mean losing all the socialization learning aspect of school

    Basically, I regret that the writer did use the example he/she used.

    If we really knew what is to be learned and how it is to be taught, what a relief it would be.
    Ambabelle, Un elephant dans mon carburateur


  4. I see that nothing in this world has changed. The man is always going to be in front of the woman and that is sad. No matter what anybody says discrimination will always have its place in this world. We have to stop once and for all discrimination period! I just hope everyone would have the chance to go to college, because I am a parent and that is my goal for my son and daughter. I have a website to help kids learn math and reading, and I have it because I am a proud parent and I want to help all kids that need help. I just wish all this discrimination would stop!

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