Shopping In Choluteca

If you don’t know, I am spending my summer as a missionary in Choluteca, Honduras. No, I haven’t posted in the wrong blog. As I was shopping in the Maxi Despensa, owned by Wal-Mart, I was thinking about the following question.

What math do kids need to know?

If you remember my previous post I said that I think there is information you should learn, information you need to learn, and information you want to learn. I believe that the high school mathematics classroom should be comprised of mathematics that we want to learn, because frankly, I do not think there is a lot of mathematics that the typical student needs to know. Rather, I think a mathematics education has value because mathematics is of interest and is a worthy topic to study for the sake of understanding and the joy that comes with it. That may overlap with a lot of current curriculum in the mathematics classroom, but we present it as need to know rather than want to know.

A friend of mine and fellow mathematics major at the University of Cincinnati, Sholom Keller, told me once that he believes that there is a difference between “math” and “mathematics”. He says categorizes subjects such as personal finances, counting and estimating amounts, and other similar tasks as math. He also says he–a mathematics major!– hates math. Most people do, and why shouldn’t they? This kind of math is boring and tedious to all but the few who find comfort or pleasure in counting or organizing things. However, he calls mathematics the body of knowledge and skills that include recognizing patterns, making inferences and deductions, logical reasoning, and proving or discovering interesting facts.

That certainly is not an exhaustive list, and I fear that I cannot convey the difference as eloquently as Sholom does–he speaks about it very passionately–but I hope you have a general idea of what Sholom calls “math” and what he calls “mathematics”. I agree with him that math is something that we need to know; numerancy is just as essential as literacy. But at least in the culture of the United States, innumerancy does not have the same stigma at illiteracy. Most people in the US would be ashamed to admit that they could not read, but we say with a certain pride “I hate math.” I think part of the reason is that we treat mathematics like math. We tell people that it’s math, we present it likes it’s math, and we tell them that we need it like we need math.

So what do this have to do with shopping in Honduran Wal-Mart?

First, it’s important to note that the exchange rate for the Honduran Lempira to the American Dollar is 19 to 1. Thus for my gringo brain to be able to have the context to understand a rough estimate how cheap or expensive an item at Maxi Despensa is I have to divide the price by twenty. The mental calculations are neither long nor complicated, but when I tell a fellow missionary that 1,800 lempiras is roughly 90 bucks after some quick mental work I am rewarded with an impressed look and comments about math teachers.

My friends, this should not be so.

I think it is immensely important that in my classroom students struggle with, understand, and share mathematics for no other reason for the sake of mathematics. I cannot stress the immensely enough here. But I have also failed them if my students can intelligently discuss Ford circles (my most recent mathematical obsession) but then go to Wal-Mart (or Maxi Despensa) and can’t make cost estimates, compare prices, or make good purchases. Especially when companies are doing things like this. Making mental estimates in the store shouldn’t be any more surprising or impressive than if I picked up a box of Zucaritas (Honduran Frosted Flakes) and started reading the ingredients. Basic numerancy should be just as common as basic literacy (Spanish fluency aside.)

While I am in Honduras I will be spending a lot of my time focusing on my work here and writing my other blog that details my experiences sharing Jesus with Hondurans. But even now I am looking ahead to when I am entrusted with students to teach. I will continue to look for the best ways to teach them mathematics while still ensuring that they understand math.

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