The dark side of funny math problems.
What Math Memes Reveal About Our STEM Education
There are a plethora of hilarious memes like this being shared around social media. Math test question is answered in an unexpected way — hilarity ensues. But there is a dark side to these funny math memes.
These memes reflect a fatal flaw with the way we teach science and mathematics: the storytelling of the context behind a mathematical problem is often seen as an afterthought.
We tend to think that the what really matters in these problem statements is schoolchildren’s ability to produce the correct answer, by applying a mathematical principle or method.
Treated this way, the problem statements we present for schoolkids to solve are thus either devoid of context, or are couched in scenarios that are trivial, or completely devoid of plausibility.
How Poor Storytelling Stifles STEM Education
Testing children by forcing them to solve for problems that they (or indeed, any sensible adult) never would in the real world is harmful in two ways.
Firstly, there is the direct harm of being conditioned like circus animals to expend effort in a clearly ludicrous endeavor, which compromises their critical reasoning instincts in the real world.
Beaten into submission, obedient students quickly learn that there are no marks awarded for questioning the context of the problem presented. By the time they graduate, they usually have lost the instincts to ask deeper questions about the objectives of stakeholders, or explore alternative ways of addressing the motivations behind the problem — all of which are highly-prized attributes in real world scenarios.
No wonder then, that we have come to draw a distinction between “book” smarts and “street” smarts. No wonder then, that IQ tests which purport to be a measure of intelligence, fail so often to capture the sort of intelligence valued in the real world. These children, apparently “gifted” with high IQs as measured by these silly standardized tests, often find themselves little better off later in life.
Secondly, there is the indirect harm of being conditioned to view the pursuit of STEM education itself as being a clearly ludicrous endeavor, devoid of relatability, or real world applicability. We often hear adults complaining “When did I ever have to use <insert STEM knowledge here> in real life?”.
The Value of Math Is Not In Mental Gymnastics
At this point, apologists will trot out the trite excuse: “The point of math is to train the mind to persevere at solving hard problems”.
These apologists will compare these apparently silly math problems to strength training. They will argue that nobody in real life will do push ups, or barbell curls. Yet we do these apparently useless motions in training, because it develops our musculature to endure greater loads in real world activities.
If you are persuaded by this fallacious reasoning, congratulations. You are “Exhibit A”: evidence of the perils of how we teach science and math in schools today.
Firstly, muscle mass easily maps onto the ability to perform a wide range of physically strenuous activities. But even then, generic conditioning is no substitute for activity-specific training that maps the workout to the conditions of the competitive activity. A bodybuilding regimen is obviously ill-suited to becoming an Olympic swimmer, and vice versa.
Secondly, this poor excuse for our failing STEM pedagogy invites the embarrassing implication: if it is not the practical value of the subject that matters, why not teach them chess, or go instead of math? Or any other intellectually strenuous subject for that matter? Why not formal logic or philosophy? Or computer programming? Why bother with math at all?
We must not lie to ourselves, or worse — our children. Science and math are not inherently valuable, or even instrumentally valuable as mental gymnastics.
A STEM education is valuable because of what it enables us to do in the real world. The observed phenomena we are able to understand and analyze, the tools and technologies we are able to create which give us the ability to cross space and time, to heal and repair, or to turn waste into treasure.
What the Nazis Can Teach Us About Fixing STEM Education
It is a terrible conceit to imagine that we have nothing to learn from evil regimes. We can and should respect their might, while equally condemning how they chose to acquire, or wield that might.
One of the things that we can learn from the Nazi regime is their peculiar approach to education. In Mein Kampf, Hitler noted that: “…our scientific education is turning more and more toward practical subjects — in other words, mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc….as this is (necessary) for a period in which technology and chemistry rule — embodying at least those of its characteristics which are most visible in daily life”. However, he was quick to add that “This education …must always be (ideological)”.
The belief that education should be in service of the state, drove Hitler to couch the syllabus in politically-motivated reasoning. In Nazi schools, problem sets in science and math were presented through the lens of racial or military doctrine.
For instance, a math problem from a German secondary school textbook published in 1937 read: “A bomber aircraft on take-off carries 12 dozen bombs, each weighing 10 kilos. The aircraft takes off for Warsaw the international centre for Jewry. It bombs the town. On take-off with all bombs on board and a fuel tank containing 100 kilos of fuel, the aircraft weighed about 8 tons. When it returns from the crusade, there are still 230 kilos left. What is the weight of the aircraft when empty?”
Math problems were also couched in state policy on eugenics. For instance, German schoolchildren were asked:
The lesson here is not that we should allow politics to contaminate the development of educational material. The tremendous brain drain it created is but one of the devastating effects of politicizing education.
What we can learn from the Nazis here is the power of storytelling in STEM education. There is a wealth of evidence today, that already demonstrates the effects of good storytelling on mathematics education.
Unlike the Nazi regime, we do not have to use use narratives of political doctrine to frame STEM education.
But by presenting problems through robustly plausible, or relatable scenarios in the real world, we can create the right motivations for our children to apply science and math principles to solving real-world problems.