#WeHateMath Apples v. Oranges

Recently I was asked to briefly explain the difference between math and arithmetic.  Here’s what I came up with:


Arithmetic can answer the question:

“What is 3 plus 2?”

Arithmetic cannot answer the question:

“What are 3 apples plus 2 oranges?”

Math, on the other hand, can take a higher order look at the problem and answer:

“3 apples plus 2 oranges are 5 pieces of fruit.”

Math is about relationships and patterns.

Math is arithmetic plus context.


#DIYMath – Math Wants to be Free

(Cross-posted at Coding 4 Humans)

As a programming and math nerd, I’ve certainly made good use of Wolfram Alpha. After all, it’s free*, it’s ubiquitous (all you need is a Web browser but there are also apps for both Android and IOS) and it’s natural language interface is very powerful and easy to use.  It’s certainly a cost-effective alternative to commercial math packages like Matlab ($50 – $2,150) or even Wolfram’s own Mathematica. ($139 – $2,495)

However, much as I love the folks at Wolfram, it’s nice to have your own math software that:

  • doesn’t require an Internet connection
  • runs on computers you control
  • still gives you a lot of power and flexibility

It’s even better if the software is:

It turns out that there are several software packages that fit the bill, each with their own strengths and weaknesses but all absolutely free and cross-platform. With that in mind, I’m going to be reviewing each of them from the perspective of a teacher and casual programmer. To keep things consistent, I’ll be looking at the following categories:

System Requirements – Because there’s no point downloading the software unless you can actually run it.

Installation – How easy is it to find and install the software? How big of a download is it and how much disk space and RAM does it need? How does installation compare between platforms? I’ll be installing the software on Windows 7, Debian Linux and Mac OS X Mavericks and comparing the experience.

Documentation – Does the developer offer good documentation and/or tutorials? (By ‘good’, I mean documentation you are actually expected to read**.) Is information available from third parties?

Compatibility – Like it or not, MatLab and Mathematica are the big dogs in the math software field. How easily could a MatLab or Mathematica user transition to this package? How easy is it to port code? The easiest way to test this is to see if scripts designed for MatLab or Mathematica will run with minimal or no modification.

Command Line vs. GUI – Some of these packages allow you to run them from the command line as well as in a graphical interface. This is very useful as it allows you to integrate the software with your native scripting language for easy automation. How do the two compare? Do both offer the same functionality? Does the software operate in the same way on different operating systems?

Summary – Pros, Cons and whether I’d recommend this to my students.

As I’ve said, I’m looking at this from the perspective of a math teacher. Are there other aspects of the software you’d like me to examine?

*for a certain definition of ‘free’

**I’ve noticed that a lot of open source software documentation seems to assume that the target audience are those who don’t need to read it. Yes, poor documentation makes me cranky.

#WeHateMath The Minimum Wage in Context

I rarely watch television news because my yelling at the TV frightens the cats. But my wife likes it so this morning while I was putting on my socks I saw our local business correspondent report on a recent vote to raise the minimum wage in Switzerland to the equivalent of $25.00 per hour. He noted with a grin that this measure was defeated, with 76% of the voters rejecting it. This was all offered ‘as is’ with no context and they went on to the next story.

What does this have to do with math, you ask?

Economics is math plus people.

Math is arithmetic with context. (If you add 2 and 3 you get 5 but what do you get when you add 2 apples and 3 oranges?)

Without context, this story was meaningless and by reporting it, they had stolen moments of my life that I could never get back.

I needed to add context to this story. I thought about what was missing.

How about:

What is the current minimum wage in Switzerland? – It turns out that Switzerland doesn’t have a mandatory minimum wage. Your pay is set either by negotiating with your employer yourself or through a representative, ie a union. (According to the OECD, union membership represented 17% of the work force as of 2010. By comparison, the US is 11%.)

How meaningful is $25/hour to the Swiss worker? – For that, we need to compare the cost of living in Switzerland versus the United States. But that’s a complex metric, so let’s pare it down to a few, everyday measurements (NOTE: I’m comparing Denver, where I live, to Zurich):

A tank of gas – Gas is $7.99/gallon in Switzerland. The average gas tank size is 18 gallons. It would cost you $143.82 to fill up your car in Switzerland. The average gas price in Denver (as of 05/19) is $3.44 so a tank of gas would run you $61.92.

A gallon of milk – $6.45 in Switzerland, $3.69 in the United States.

Average Monthly Salary (after tax) – $6652.07 in Zurich, $3466.28 in Denver.

It turns out that Swiss workers are among the highest paid in the world and 90% of them already earn more than the proposed minimum wage of $25/hour AND they work an average of 35 hours per week. In addition, the unemployment rate in Switzerland is a paltry 3.2%.

Now I have some context. It would appear that the Swiss are doing pretty well for themselves (at least, most of them) and now it’s not that surprising that this proposal was rejected.

#WeHateMath Book Review – How to Think Like a Mathematician

It’s not often that you find a math book that opens with a joke. I mean, literally in the opening, just before the preface:

Question: How many months have 28 days?
Mathematician’s answer: All of them.

(Okay, it’s no ‘man from Nantucket’ but I got a chuckle out of it.) I also found one of my favorite footnotes:

….use or like mathematics are considered geeks or nerds*

* Add your own favorite term of abuse for the intelligent but unstylish.

This was just in the preface (ProTip: always read the preface, kids!).

The author, Kevin Houston, teaches at the School of Mathematics at the University of Leeds. His dry British wit is evident throughout this very readable text. But this isn’t just a math-oriented joke book. It’s a solid collection of mathematical ideas and skills starting with sets and functions through proof techniques and equivalence relations. Houston wraps up with a discussion of how to recognize true mathematical understanding.


Houston, K. (2009). How to think like a mathematician: A companion to undergraduate mathematics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

#WeHateMath A Better Way to Teach Math?

Ever since I started teaching math, I’ve been trying to figure out why so many students (and non-students) seem to have problems with it and what I could do about that. With that in mind, I’ve been trying different techniques to see which ones are effective.

The first one was what I call the “Age of Aquarius” technique. It usually has me saying things like “Math is the secret language of the Universe” and “We’re all made of math” in an attempt to engage student imaginations. Unfortunately these work best with an audience that is already receptive and math classes are generally full of people who want to be anywhere else. As a result, saying these things makes them think that either you are high or you’re trying to make your job sound more interesting than it is.

I call the second method “Eat Your Vegetables”. This consists of explaining how learning math is good for you, usually by citing the Stanford Medical School study that showed improved brain function from the very act of learning math. In other words, even if you never use this stuff in your real life, it’s the mental equivalent of CrossFit. This also fell flat, being a bit too abstract for a group that just wanted to get through the class with a minimum of effort.

I decided to tackle this from the other end. I wanted to find the source of this distaste for math. I’ve always felt that hate is a fear-based emotion so if I can lower the general anxiety level in the room, I should get better responses.

One technique I used was to use tools to handle the mechanics of problem-solving. For example, whenever convenient I encouraged the use of calculators once the math portion of the problem had been processed. (If you understand the math well enough to explain it to a machine, this is a good thing.) For statistics, I showed how to use spreadsheets to quickly and easily observe the effects of different sample data on results as well as how to create different types of charts to visualize the numbers. For probability, I brought in decks of cards. I used a drawing program to sketch out problems and scenarios.

I also tried to minimize the use of jargon during class. While it’s useful to have a common vocabulary, I wanted students to pay more attention to the relationships and patterns than to worry about coming up with the correct terminology. We introduced terms as needed but it was okay if they had to use a few more words to explain what they were talking about or if they had to draw a picture or diagram.

This was the first term I used these techniques so it’s early days. But my last class session was today and overall I feel quite positive. Several students have remarked that this was the best math class they’ve ever had and my retention rate was pretty good. For math classes, it’s not unusual for half or more of registered students to withdraw before end of term. Out of an initial class of twenty one, I lost just seven and of those, four withdrew before the start of the term.

All in all, a good start. I’m teaching two sections of the same class next term so I’ll continue to refine my techniques and report my data here.

#WeHateMath Calculators Considered Harmful

“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”(Phaedrus 274c-275b)


The above quote is Socrates complaining about the invention of the written word. He claimed that allowing students to write down facts instead of memorizing them would weaken their minds.

I’m reminded of this when I see some of the reactions to suggestions that we embrace the use of computer technology in the way we teach math. The most noted advocate for this is Conrad Wolfram, who described his philosophy in a 2010 TED Talk.

My first introduction to technology-assisted math was in my high school chemistry class, where we learned how to use a slide rule. (Yes, I’m thatold.) We didn’t have them in math class (or calculators for that matter) so all calculations was done by hand. I didn’t get my first calculator until I went off to college. As this technology got cheaper and more readily available, it began to filter down towards K-12, where I recall a lot of controversy over allowing their use in class. It was felt at the time that it would make students unable to do arithmetic by hand and therefore become dependent entirely on machines to do it for them.

Back in 1957, Isaac Asimov wrote a short story “The Feeling of Power”, about just that kind of future and how society had to rediscover the technique of doing arithmetic by hand. The comments at this page about this story are…..okay, I’m trying to think of how to say this….well, let’s just say there’s a certain ‘you kids get off of my lawn’ quality to them.

Please don’t misunderstand. I absolutely believe that grade school kids should learn how to do arithmetic by hand, to start. But I don’t believe that it’s as simple as we either do all of our math by hand or become completely dependent on machines.

First of all, I have no problem doing arithmetic using a machine. Arithmetic is a very mechanical activity, which is one of the reasons why teaching it involves so much memorization. It isn’t something that comes naturally to us humans. However, we should be comfortable with arithmetic so that we can visualize what our answer should look like and to make sure the problem was entered correctly.  (I prefer using a text editor to writing by hand. This doesn’t make me illiterate.)

Math, on the other hand, involves intuition, creativity, imagination and logical thinking. Machines can make the arithmetic part of it easier but you still need to understand the problem well enough to explain it to the machine. We teachers don’t have to fear the use of calculators or computers in a math class if we use them intelligently. Where these machines can be used to our advantage is to reduce student anxiety about the mechanical parts of the problem so they can focus on the part requiring human-based thinking.

In my experience, students hate math because they fear arithmetic. They are so scarred by their grade school arithmetic classes where the slightest error in a long chain of arithmetic would ripple down and cause them to get the problem wrong (and fail the test) that they don’t want to be anywhere near any class that reminds them of that.

I encourage the use of calculators (and spreadsheets and Wolfram Alpha) in my college math class. They take away fear and give us more time to actually talk about math.

#WeHateMath Math without Calculations?

I ran across a couple of articles that discuss something that I’ve been pondering (and talking about on this blog) for a while now. That is, teaching mathematics without requiring that students do the final calculations by hand.

Here’s the basic idea. Computation (formulating solutions to problems) is more important now than ever. However, since we have calculators, computers and even Web sites to crunch the numbers for us, doing the calculations by hand is out-of-date and should be de-emphasized.

This idea was recently promoted by Conrad Wolfram, the head of Wolfram Research, which produces the software package Mathematica and the math engine Wolfram Alpha. Here’s an interview with Wolfram where he describes his idea in a bit more detail.

I’m not saying this is a bad idea, but I can see that there are any number of ways for someone to take this in a negative way. It takes a while to think this through for those of us who (like me) were raised and educated in the traditional math curriculum.

I teach undergraduate math, so I’m always on the look-out for ways to improve my classroom content. That means that sometimes I use my classroom as a lab for a little empirical research.

For example, this term I’m teaching College Mathematics. This is a 100-level class aimed at non-technical students (we’re a career college) and my students are in a mix of majors like Medical Assisting, Graphic Design and Business Administration. The course description is as follows:


This course develops problem-solving and decision-making strategies using mathematical tools from arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and statistics. Topics include consumer mathematics, key concepts in statistics and probability, sets of numbers, and geometry. Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to apply mathematical tools and methods to solve real-world problems.


So it’s essentially a course in functional numeracy. For most of these students, this is the only math class in their program.

I decided to test the theory that the thing most people who claim to hate math actually hate arithmetic. My personal opinion is that arithmetic is unnatural and mechanical (since the learning strategy consists of memorization) and that math places more emphasis on creativity, intuition and critical thinking. With this in mind, on my first day of class I did the following:

  1. Explain the difference between math and arithmetic.
  2. Set a policy of ‘no arithmetic by hand, unless it’s absolutely convenient’. (For example, I’m not going to grab a calculator to multiply 9 by 5.)

For each session, I start with a “Math Minute” where I present a short puzzle or thought experiment to get students thinking and discussing some math concept. For the rest of the period I discuss this week’s subject (I can’t change the text or the lesson plan). However, I keep the conversation focussed on concepts rather than calculation. When we work through problems, we spend most of the time thinking through the set-up and then use a calculator (or spreadsheet or Wolfram Alpha) to get the answer. (This is only for problems where the calculation isn’t obvious. See 2 above.)

As you can see, I haven’t made any big changes (evolutionary, not revolutionary). I still have to pay attention to different student learning styles, encourage group participation, share problem-solving tricks and all of the other classroom techniques I’ve been using for years now.

As expected, there was some resistance. I was taking an unusual approach by de-emphasizing those parts of a math class that are traditionally the focus. But overall the response has been positive.

Now I don’t think that all classroom math should be abstracted to machines. In my class, we still use decks of cards and dice to talk about probability, count floor tiles to think about surface area and lots and lots of whiteboard work complete with diagrams. The point is to get students to connect with math and I’m just shifting that connection to the problem set-up process and I’m a fan of whatever works.