Michigan's Legislature and Math Illiteracy

Maybe you have seen this video. I stumbled upon it while looking at Dylan Kane's blog and found it interesting for a few reasons.

In the video, Deborah Ball is presenting to Michigan's House and Senate Education Committees -- a group of about 15 legislators. She is making the point that teachers need to know more than just the content they teach. She uses the example of whole-number multiplication to show that there is more to teaching than just knowing the content.

She explains that content knowledge just lets you identify if a student is right or wrong. It does not help you diagnose their error or inform how to help them correct their work.[2]One of my graduate school professors shared research on what math teachers need to know. Here, Ball is pointing out that teachers need more than just content knowledge. Another thing teachers need is pedagogical knowledge -- knowing what general practices are best regardless of content.
The research introduced a third type know as pedagogical content knowledge -- knowing the best ways in which to present specific content or support students in learning specific content. As Ball illustrates in this video, this is an area of knowledge often overlooked by non-teachers.
She analogizes this to a doctor who can only identify if a patient is sick but cannot treat them.

As a teacher, it is easy to watch this video and feel good about teaching. Ball does a wonderful job of illustrating the specific skills that teaching simple elementary math requires. However, I am much more interested in two moments that occur in the video. The first occurs after Ball asks the legislators to calculate \(49\times25\). One of the legislators asks, "Can I pull out my phone?" Then a few others laugh.

Little moments and comments like these are so incredibly common (I have started posting the ones I find here). On its own, this joke is mostly harmless. I could even see myself making the same joke in a similar situation. But, once you become attuned to hearing and noticing these little statements of math illiteracy, you start to see how they could collectively shape culture.

Here is another one less than two minutes later:

"Ummm, Mr. Chair, I wasn't aware that math was going to be involved." This statement is followed by a few chuckles. The legislators are being asked to think about multiplying whole numbers; and, as Ball says, they all reduce to "jelly." The message from these powerful adults is clear "Math is intimidating and something you want to avoid doing."

I am not overly concerned about the Michigan legislature's math background. I am confident that all involved could answer these questions with more time and less pressure. What concerns me is how normalized being intimidated by math has become everywhere. Everyday, I hear someone say, in some form or another, that they are bad at math or intimidated by math. The implied conclusion being that there is no way they will or could improve.

When students hear these statements coming from elected officials, celebrities, parents, and teachers, it negatively impacts their opinions about a subject that so many already struggle with. Giving up on understanding math really has become the norm in this country and it is painful to encounter reminders of that every day.