MORE MATH!….A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post suggesting that we quit teaching algebra and geometry to most (but not all!) high school students. Needless to say, I have nothing against algebra, and even won a free lunch from an engineer buddy of mine a few years ago by betting him that I could derive the quadratic equation and he couldn’t. (I remembered the trick; he just flailed around. Childish, perhaps, but satisfying nonetheless for a marketing guy.)

Still, a free lunch only gets you just so far, and this subject has been in the back of my mind ever since. So today I’d like to toss out a few ideas about what we should replace all that algebra with. That is, what kinds of mathematical techniques should we teach junior high and high school students?

  • A better sense of magnitude and estimation. I am frequently perplexed by coworkers who can add and subtract perfectly well but have no idea of magnitudes. They would, for example, manipulate a bunch of numbers and decide that the market size for some product was 500 million units. They had no clue that they were obviously off by a factor of a thousand or more. If you use a calculator to add up a list of two digit numbers, you should have some sense that something is wrong if the answer is 33 ? or 33,000.

  • Simple probability and statistics. Nothing fancy, just an understanding of mean and median, how to read a chart, gotchas to look out for, and so forth. If it’s done right, this stuff can actually be pretty fun even for mathophobes.

  • “Spreadsheet math.” I’m not even sure what I mean by this, but spreadsheets are used and abused by millions these days, and a lot of the abuse comes from people who don’t really understand the limitations of what you can do with a column of figures.

Any other ideas? I’m not trying to disparage the idea of learning for its own sake, but at the same time education does have a utilitarian purpose as well. In the case of math, and taking into account the realities of how much you can force feed to high school students, what should we emphasize? What kinds of things are genuinely most likely to remain with them throughout their lives?