Made of Money

Why Aren’t We Teaching Math for the Real World?

Math is still important, but we have the priorities wrong in the current framework

9 min read

Green written equations on a blackboard.
Image credit: João Trindade // CC BY 2.0
Made of Money logo depicting the series title on a coin, and a U.S. dollar sign

Sometime in the first few weeks of this year, my 12-year-old son got it into his head that it would be fun to build his own computer. Before long, this interest bloomed into a genuine obsession; whenever he found himself with free time in front of a web browser, he’d be searching for different motherboard configurations, or watching YouTube videos explaining how to install power supplies, or investigating the benefits of adding VRAM to the graphics card. All conversations inevitably swung around to his imagined machine: Picking him up from school, he’d grunt out three words about his classes and then start peppering me with questions about multi-core CPUs.

We are generally an Apple household; historically, we have left the task of designing our machines to the capable hands of Jonny Ive. And while I have been fascinated personally and professionally with computers since the mid-1980s, I can honestly say it never once occurred to me to assemble one myself. But my son appears to have been cursed to be born as a Maker into a family of Takers, and so my wife and I encouraged this growing passion of his, even if we quietly feared that we would actually be forced to help him build the machine someday.

If I sound like I am not-so-humble-bragging about my prodigy child, I should mention at the outset that my son wasn’t memorizing all those hardware specs so that he could do his own personal genome sequencing, or write the source code for the next Facebook. He just wanted to play games. He wanted to create a machine that would render the virtual mayhem of Battlefield or Far Cry more realistically than some off-the-shelf PlayStation or XBox. But like so many stories in the history of computing, the pursuit of seemingly frivolous entertainment led him into some intellectually challenging places.

Eventually he found a website that enabled him to track all the components of distinct builds, checking for compatibility between the various parts, and calculating a budget for each potential machine. He’d report at the end of the night that he’d found a new case that allowed him to get the overall price below $700; we’d discuss the tradeoffs of spending more money on the video card versus the CPU. Many of the components had mail-in rebates, so he had to separate out the upfront expenditures from the final cost of the machine. To demonstrate to us how much money he was saving by building the computer himself, he designed an equivalent build on the Dell website and compared the two costs. He spent far too many hours drifting off into the fantasy land of designing builds that wouldn’t have been out of place rendering a Pixar movie. (He created a budget for one machine that cost more than $100,000.) But slowly, he zeroed in on a set of components that worked within the limits of his budget but still promised the high frame-rates and visual splendor he sought in his game landscapes.

After a few months of this, my wife and I finally caved and said that he could spend his own money, saved up from years of allowance and birthday gifts, to buy the parts–even though we both felt the very last thing we needed in our house was another gaming device. And so one Sunday we headed out to the Brooklyn Micro Center store and roamed the aisles with a shopping cart, plucking CPUs and motherboards from the shelves like boxes of cereal at a supermarket. Four hours later, after a long stretch of fiddling with parts and a few anxious moments installing Windows drivers, my son successfully booted up what was, for him, a truly personal computer.

The day after he brought his contraption to life, my son happened to have a geometry test. I sat with him for a few minutes helping him prepare, quizzing him on the formula for the volume of a cone and double-checking his calculations on the surface area of a cylinder. I suspect like most parents with kids this age, I had to go back and remind myself what the formulas were–and as I googled around for the right answers, it occurred to me that my geometric ignorance was a sign of something meaningful. Unlike many parents, I have actually spent my entire career in a STEM-related world: founding and advising web startups, writing books about science and technology. And yet not once–not one single time–over the 35 years that have passed since I was my son’s age have I ever had to calculate the volume of a cone or the surface area of a cylinder. I’m not just repeating the old cliché that we don’t need to memorize these formulas because we can just ask Google for them now. It’s more profound than that: I have never once required the information, whether it was stored in my memory banks or the server farms of Google.

Seeing these two experiences side by side–my son spending two months researching the components for a dream computer and studying for a geometry test–made me think about the kinds of information that schools conventionally impart to students, particularly now in an age where everyone genuflects at the altar of STEM. Think about what my son was learning as he planned his bespoke computer: using the Internet to research and comparison shop; compiling budgets; modeling different configurations; weighing cost-benefit tradeoffs; learning the mechanical skills required to assemble the components; acquiring the deeper understanding of how computers work that comes from actually building one yourself. Yes, all that expertise was being harnessed for creating what would eventually just be a glorified video game console. But the kind of problem-solving you need to build a computer is actually a very complex form of thinking, certainly more complex than just memorizing a formula and plugging in the numbers. And while I have never had to calculate the volume of a cone in my adult life, I can’t begin to count the number of times I have had to create budgets, think through cost-benefit assessments, or research thorny technical problems online.

And that left me with a strange paradox: the easy, mechanical, and largely useless knowledge my son was learning was coming from the classroom–and from a classroom where they were directly focused on the “M” in STEM, the skills we are all supposed to need to “compete in the 21st century.” The more challenging and more useful knowledge was coming from outside the classroom, from a hobby, from the work that was so much fun that my son couldn’t even imagine it as work.

I may not have had a need for surface area formulas after I left seventh grade, but like just about any grownup, I rely on mathematical thinking constantly in both my professional and personal life. I’ve built or reviewed countless spreadsheets that model a business’s performances, or our own household economics; I’ve had to think about interest rates and what it might mean to refinance our mortgage, or switch from one credit card to another; I’ve built traffic models for websites that evaluate different scenarios based on partnerships or potential advertising spends; I’m constantly opening up Excel or Numbers to sketch out some future financial scenario for our family: preparing for college tuitions, retirement, modeling different career paths.

And yet, beyond the basics of addition/subtraction/multiplication/division (most of which is calculated by the computers anyway), I learned every single one of those skills on my own, outside the classroom. And I suspect most kids today will learn them on their own as well, outside the classroom. Most kids in reasonably good schools, in the US at least, will be taught calculus and algebra and advanced geometry by the time they apply for a driver’s license, but they will never once be asked to build a financial model in Excel. It would be one thing if building a financial model were some kind of simple but practical skill, like learning how to tie your shoelaces. In that scenario, you could plausibly argue that we teach kids calculus skills that the vast majority of them will never use because it is a good exercise for the mind, the way learning to play chess at a high level is good for the mind. But building a complex financial model can be an enormously challenging endeavor: You’re taking a system with dozens if not hundreds of variables that are both changing over time and interrelated in many different ways, and you’re trying to figure out the best way to represent that data and forecast potential outcomes in the future.

Skeptics might object that teaching seventh-graders how to build a budget is some kind of creepy indoctrination to a world run by finance. But these are not just skills that prep you for a career as an accountant or a venture capitalist. Nonprofit founders and musicians and politicians–not to mention anyone managing their own personal finances–need to be able to build and understand financial models. You could make the argument that this should be the required part of the math curriculum, with algebra and calculus the electives. Home economics got a bad name for itself, back when it was a blatantly sexist institution training young women for their future lives as homemakers. But some variation of that theme–grounded this time on a rigorous mathematical foundation–would be so much more enriching (and, I suspect, interesting) than memorizing the formula for the volume of a cone.

I don’t intend any of this as a criticism of my son’s school, which has in many other departments embraced the kind of project-based learning that he was exploring independently in building his computer. It’s impossible for a school today to simply opt out of the traditional way of teaching math, to ignore canonical skills that most of us (in the United States at least) have a been taught for the last century or so, because the tests and evaluations that feed into the college system are all oriented around those skills. It’s a problem that has to be solved by rethinking math on a much larger scale than just a single school.

But single schools can still make a difference. Earlier in the year, the math program at my son’s school introduced a month-long project where the kids were asked to evaluate what the appropriate minimum wage should be in cities around the United States. They paired up in virtual households, two students each with two imaginary children, and spent weeks researching the low-wage job opportunities in the city they had been assigned. They scouted rental apartments on Zillow and calculated a food budget for their family. My son found a secondhand furniture store with an online catalog in his city (Portland, Ore.) and decorated his home as though he were playing The Sims. They researched the Earned Income Tax Credit to figure out how much the government would supplement their wages; they investigated whether Medicaid would cover their family’s health care costs. At one point my son came home excitedly reporting that they had figured out a way to actually put away 10 grand a year into their retirement savings, while still working at minimum wage. When he explained that their plan involved both parents working 80-hour weeks, we sat down and had a conversation about childcare and burnout.

My son and his classmates didn’t, in the end, build a spreadsheet to model all that information, but the overall exercise was a profound one nonetheless. It was a mix of financial planning, cost-benefit analysis, online research, and politics all bound up in one unified project. It was a kind of home economics that actually took them out of their generally affluent homes and forced them to think about the challenges of the working poor–all the while teaching them skills that will prove to be useful to them as grownups, even if they are lucky enough never have to think about raising a family on minimum wage. And like my son’s experience planning his dream computer, the project had them so engrossed that they didn’t have time to notice how much they were learning–which, of course, is usually the best way.


Added March 27, 2016: A few more notes and clarifications, responding to the very thoughtful comments here (and on Facebook.)

First, I don’t by any means intend this to be an argument for a narrowly vocational view of education, where the only point of school is to engineer students to have a skill-set that will get them a job once they graduate. That would be pretty rich coming from a guy who majored in Semiotics and spent five years in graduate school studying nineteenth-century novels. I’m not in the Marco Rubio, we-need-welders-not-philosophers camp by any means. I happen to believe, for example, that fields like history, psychology, and sociology should be part of the curriculum, even if they only translate indirectly into vocational skills. Knowing something about how the human mind works, or how groups of humans interact and collaborate, or how human societies have solved (or created) problems in the past–these are all forms of knowledge that remain useful and pertinent no matter what career path you end up taking.

Some have made the case that understanding, say, calculus belongs to that same category of knowledge: it may not be directly applicable to your life post-school, but understanding it is part of understanding how the world works, since so many elements of modern life depend on high-level mathematics behind the scenes. I’m not sure I would disagree with that, actually. I’m not necessarily arguing that we should do away with memorizing the formula for the volume of a cone, and replace it with project-based studies where you would, say, build a financial model for a small city government. What I’m saying is that we have the priorities wrong in the current framework. We teach the most esoteric side of “numeracy,” and ignore the equally rich but more widely applicable side. The way we teach math now would be like an English curriculum that taught Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, but never bothered to teach kids how to structure a written argument on the page. I happen to think spending time reading Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf should be part of any kid’s education, but if I were forced to choose, I’d want to make sure they could construct a persuasive argument first. If you can get them to appreciate the beauty of calculus, terrific, but I think the first requirement is that they have the mathematical tools to understand the federal deficit, or the mortgage-loan crisis, or the economics of health insurance, or the risk-reward ratios of investing in a new business.

Ironically, it seems to me that the skills required to master calculus are actually the more narrowly vocational, in that you are likely never to use them unless you get a job in a very small number of fields. But the more generalized numeracy and financial modeling skills are important in simply being an engaged citizen of the world: you need them personally, professionally, and politically. But by all means, if we can, let’s teach both sides.

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Made of Money section, which covers the future of cash, finance, economics, and trade. Click the logo to read more.