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History of Math Teaching in the US


The past several years I have had students who did not know how to tell time with an analog clock. You would have thought it looked like the one at the beginning of this post. They said that the reason they didn't know how to read an analog clock was that all the clocks in their homes and lives were digital. Since I believe that the ability to tell time by looking at the hands on the clock is a basic life skill, I made sure those students learned to do so. But I have to wonder why they hadn't been taught this somewhere in their schooling.

Earlier this week I received a classic that had been updated from the version I had in my files, and I decided that this would be this week's blog post.

History of Math Teaching in the US (since the 1950's)
attributed to several individuals

Recently a man purchased a burger at a fast food restaurant for $1.58. The girl at the counter took his two dollars as he dug in his pocket for change. He pulled out 8 cents and gave the coins to her. She stood there, holding the nickel and 3 pennies, staring at the screen on her register. He sensed her discomfort and tried to tell her just to give him two quarters, but she hailed the manager for help. While he tried to explain the transaction to his employee, she stood there and cried.

Why could something like this happen? Because of the evolution in teaching math since the 1950s:

Teaching Math in 1950's — A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price. What is his profit ?

Teaching Math in 1960's — A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price, or $80. What is his profit?

Teaching Math in 1970's — A logger exchanges a set "L" of lumber for a set "M" of money. The cardinality of set "M" is 100. Each element is worth one dollar. Make 100 dots representing the elements of the set "M". The set "C", the cost of production, contains 20 fewer points than set "M." Represent the set "C" as a subset of set "M" and answer the following question: What is the cardinality of the set "P" for profits?

Teaching Math in 1980's — A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80 and his profit is $20. Your assignment: Underline the number 20.

Teaching Math in 1990's — A logger cuts down a beautiful forest because he is selfish and inconsiderate and cares nothing for the habitat of animals or the preservation of our woodlands. He does this so he can make a profit of $20. What do you think of this way of making a living? Topic for class participation after answering the question: How did the birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down their homes? (There are no wrong answers, and if you feel like crying, it's ok.)

Teaching Math in 1996 — By laying off 40% of its loggers, a company improves its stock price from $80 to $100. How much capital gain per share does the CEO make by exercising his stock options at $80? Assume capital gains are no longer taxed, because this encourages investment.

Teaching Math in 1997 — A company out-sources all of its loggers. The firm saves on benefits, and when demand for its product is down, the logging work force can easily be cut back. The average logger employed by the company earned $50,000, had three weeks vacation, a nice retirement plan and medical insurance. The contracted logger charges $50 an hour. Was outsourcing a good move?

Teaching Math in 1999 — A laid-off logger serving time in Folsom for going postal and doing some bad things is now being trained as a COBOL programmer in order to work on Y2K projects. What is the probability that the automatic cell doors will open on their own as of 00:01, 01/01/00?

Teaching Math in 2005 — Un leñador vende una carga de madera por $100. El costo de producción es.... Press one to hear the question in English.

Teaching Math in 2013 — Who cares, just steal the lumber from your rich neighbor's property. He doesn't deserve to have lumber when you don't and he won't have a gun to stop you anyway. Besides the Feds say it's OK anyway cuz it’s just redistributing the wealth.


Is the history true of the era/s in which you were learning math?


"To know God is real life." — Art Nuernberg


86.3754% of all statistics are made up.

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5 Comments on “History of Math Teaching in the US”

  1. #1 Vikki
    on Mar 20th, 2013 at 8:27 am

    Love the clock!

    I remember when new math came on the scene and parent’s couldn’t help their grade school age kids with their math homework because of the crazy twist in the terms. If the old methods still work, why do they keep playing around with it? The same with reading. When I was a kid, memorization of words and not phonics was all the rage. Because of that I hated to read. I remember, even as a high schooler, having to ask my mother what a word was because I had no tools to sound it out. I finally learned phonics with my kids and found that I love to read!

    The last one for 2013 is the best!

    Happy First Day of Spring everyone 🙂

  2. #2 karen
    on Mar 20th, 2013 at 10:25 am

    Great article! This “evolution” has also happened with student writing. I teach writing as a tutor and cannot believe the non-sentence, misspelled, non-punctuated, non-paragraphs that are pushed across my desk.

  3. #3 Jonathan
    on Mar 20th, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Did you mean to ask if the history to true to the ‘errors’ in which we were learning math? LOL

  4. #4 Carrie
    on Mar 20th, 2013 at 10:45 am

    I don’t remember learning math (other than crying over long division), but I do know how to do it! I’m glad I taught math using curriculum that isn’t blown about by every wind.

  5. #5 Laura
    on Mar 20th, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    All three of my children who have completed 1st grade have analog watches. I refuse to let them grow up not knowing how to tell time.