Slaying the ‘math monster’: It’s not about numbers, it’s about learning how to think

Celia Storey :

The tweet that raced around the internet before truth had time to put on its shoes was this: In a delicatessen in Pittsburgh, a mysterious sign had appeared adjuring customers to “Please Refrain From Discussing Mathematics While Waiting in Line.”

People in Pittsburgh couldn’t find this deli (because it’s in Connecticut). Nevertheless humorous folks felt free to decide it was a real sign posted by a real lunchman tired of having his totals second-guessed by know-it-alls. Wasn’t it?

Well, no. Nothing like that (see accompanying story). But the thing is, that explanation was plausible. These cashiers these days, they can’t do the math, right?

But who can? Math is too hard. Only numbers-people can do it.

Again, not true. But as a statement of a common belief? Mmm, could be.

Denise LeGrand sees evidence in restaurants, in stores. Maybe she’s out with friends and it’s time to split the bill, work out the tips. “It scares people, problem-solving in general,” she says.

Before cash registers made deducting discounts a matter of knowing which icon to tap, she often helped sales clerks tally her bill. Meanwhile, she was thinking, “How do they take care of their finances? How do they do a budget?”

But then, LeGrand is one of those numbers-people. She runs the Mathematics Assistance Center (MAC) at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and teaches calculus in the department of mathematics and statistics. And by the way, she’s dismayed by how people react when they learn her profession — “You’re a math teacher? Oh, I hated that.”