Math Is a LANGUAGE First, a Technical Skill Second

Jul 3, 2014

On this national holiday, let us ponder how we are educating our children, and ask ourselves: What is mathematics for?

Is Math Liberal?” – a recent review on the Mother Jones website of How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, a book by University of Wisconsin math professor Jordan Ellenberg – suggests that math is not just about computation, but also a framework for thinking through problems intelligently. Not surprisingly for a piece in Mother Jones, the article suggests that math used intelligently can provide insights in areas such as politics and religion.

Well, OK, but it’s even simpler than that. Even before viewing math as a computational skill – which it is – and as a thinking skill – which it also is – it must be seen as a language for describing complex situations and problems. When you are using numbers to describe a company’s financial results, or a sales commission plan, or a price list, or how well a baseball team is playing, or for that matter the fiscal state of the U.S. federal government, you’re not asking your audience to do any computation whatsoever, nor necessarily even any analytical thinking. You’re just describing.

Think back on all the times numbers were presented unclearly or downright incoherently. Were the concepts too difficult or complex to articulate, or for the audience to understand? Probably not.

It’s a shame that math isn’t taught in school as a communication skill, and not just as a computation skill. If it were, all those numbers we’re deluged with would be so much easier to understand, and so much more meaningful.

Let’s teach our children quantation! And have a great July 4th!

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people to focus on making numbers understandable. I welcome your feedback and your favorite examples. Follow me on twitter at @RandallBolten.

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