Math: a 21st Century Skill

How does math fit into classroom instruction in the 21st century?

[swfobj src=”[swfobj src=”” alt=”Sean Sallings “How to Square a Number””]

“When are we ever going to need this?” is the phrase students have been groaning in math class for decades. Now, when calculators are included with phones, computers, watches, desk clocks, notebooks, and everything except your toaster, math skills can seem less essential than ever.

In fact, while arithmetic may be less often called for in modern life, math is increasingly important. Look at the skill set our students will need for their work and adult lives:

  • Problem solving and critical thinking skills are essential. They always have been fairly key, in our opinion, but the modern workplace requires everyone to be able to respond intelligently to problems as they arise. The pace of life is fast, individual employees are more likely to be empowered to make decisions, and people are more likely to work both independently (often in a different space or at a different time from supervisors) and collaboratively. Agility in responding to change and quick response are highly desired by employers. Our students need logic, an analytical mindset, and the ability to manage, sort, and prioritize information quickly. Following an algorithm isn’t enough any more — there are machines to do that.
  • Data analysis is more sophisticated than ever. With increasing amounts of data and more data-driven apps, it’s easier and more common than ever to gather and quantify data. It used to be that only specialized jobs required the use of spreadsheets and the ability to comprehend complex data reporting. Now, nearly all workers are expected to gather and deal with data. As the amount of information being automatically gathered and computer programs are more frequently used to quantify and tabulate that data, people have to be able to interpret, analyze, and apply numerical data. We don’t do so much counting nowadays, but we really have to be able to understand numbers and quantifiable information when we see it.
  • Technology makes math easier — but only if you can use it. We know people who still use paper and pencil to collect and analyze data and to do business math, but those are people who learned their skills in the 20th century. Modern workers are expected to be able to understand, use, and create charts, graphs, and spreadsheets with programs like Excel. They’re required to be able to identify the numbers they need to plug into specific programs that go with their jobs or their companies — which means that they need to have good number sense and a grasp of algebraic thinking. Computers often need numbers from humans in order to do their jobs and “eyeballing” or trial and error won’t work: for my work, I have to specify a certain number of pixels or inches, and my software won’t accept, “Just make it look good.”
  • Communicating information is key, and our standards are higher. No one will be happy with a coworker who sends a list of data, and few would accept a spreadsheet of raw data as a report. We expect information to be made available in a form that can be grasped at a glance. Even if we have software that automatically creates graphic organizers for us, we need to be able to choose the best one for the data we’re using. To communicate well, we may also have to make design decisions. More complex data in larger quantities requires greater creativity and skill with communicating that data.
  • Financial and entrepreneurial skills. Many leaders in the realm of 21st century skills believe that personal financial skills, understanding of economics, and entrepreneurial skills are essentials for people growing up now. If so, then math is an essential underpinning of those skills. So are problem solving, critical thinking, data analysis, and the ability to communicate quantifiable data.

Here’s what we think this means for our classrooms:

  • We need to approach math differently. We can’t separate math out as arithmetic and set students to pages of worksheets asking how many apples Johnny will have if he gives Suzie two. We can’t make memorization the centerpiece of our math classes. We have to use math as part of understanding information, making decisions, solving problems, and communicating information, or our students won’t be able to use the math they learn.
  • We have to integrate math into other instruction. Not only will we need to quit treating math as though it were a set of rather mechanical skills students have to learn, but we also have to use it all over the curriculum. I’ve often had the experience, when presenting in classrooms about science or social studies, of asking a question that requires some understanding of math and being faced with helpless incomprehension. If I rephrase the question as an equation, answers pop up all over the classroom. The problem is, math in the work world hardly ever arrives in the form of an equation. It’s more often in the form of, “Why are the conversion rates for that state so low?” Our classrooms have to integrate math well enough that our students can form their own equations from real-world problems and issues.
  • We must change our attitude toward math. Do you laugh that you hate math in your classroom? Do you announce that you’re no good at math? Do you get silly at the mention of algebra? In his book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, John Allen Paulos marveled that Americans would practically brag about being bad at math, when they would never glory in being illiterate. This attitude has got to go. It’s probably less common now than in 1988 when the book was published, but we still hear this kind of comment in classrooms and hallways. Paulos was making a point about how easily people who aren’t good with math can be swayed by propaganda and advertising pitches, and how much more difficult it is for them to understand and evaluate information, and he’s right. Share some of his examples with your class to make the point in a fun but striking way. By the way, if you’re still making remarks about girls not liking math or football players being bad at math or anything of that kind, you need an intervention fast.

Here are some more of the online math resources that we think will help you achieve the goals we’ve listed:

And please come back and visit us regularly. One of our goals — and one which won us the services of artist Jay Jaro in a Big Ideas contest — is to make FreshPlans a truly valuable site for the teaching of math. We hope you’ll join us as we work toward that goal.


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