As America bemoans its woeful performance in math, we should remind ourselves why we want our kids to do well in math in the first place. Sure, we need the inventive geniuses who make our society better: someone’s got to cure cancer, and build a better iPhone antenna, and develop cheap renewable energy to spare our planet. But innovation is just part of the equation. Kids need to learn math to make their own adult lives better, by making smart decisions on routine day-to-day matters. Let’s explore the ways we live smarter when we grasp the numbers.
1. If kids grow up to be good at math, they’ll raise kids who are good at math — because parents are children’s first teachers. When parents love math and feel comfortable with it, and feel brave enough to help a child with math homework, that attitude is contagious. Those parents were once kids themselves, so let’s start the cycle on the right foot, for the good of our kids and for society.
2. Teachers need to step up their game. Far more kids will learn math and enjoy it if they have great teachers. And yet we continue to accept low math standards for elementary school teachers. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality and the National Math and Science Initiative, many applicants to teacher colleges only need to get 40 percent right on the math section of entrance exams. It’s hard to teach something you don’t understand, and to help your students feel comfortable with the material. Inspired students require inspired teachers.
3. Changing the world takes more than just feeling good. Do we know whether our efforts to save really make a difference? How much plastic do we spare by buying bottled water with slightly smaller caps? When we buy cloth diapers, do we really know whether we’re helping the environment, or whether in fact all that hot water and electricity to wash them cancels out the benefits? We should make sure we are doing good vs. just feeling good.
4. Foreseeing long-term consequences is crucial. This holds just as true for big-ticket items, like the compounding interest on debt. Whether you become a painter, a neurosurgeon or a nail-salon attendant, you will have to manage your finances, and you will survive better if you are willing to fall forward and grasp the numbers behind debt. The 2008 mortgage crisis might have been far less ugly if everyone had had that comfort level.
5. Not all deals are created equal. When people offer you a deal, that deal is probably better for them than for you, or they wouldn’t offer it. Math shines a bright light on this. When you’re pitched a warranty that costs one tenth as much as the product, ask yourself: has one out of every ten things in your house broken before it should have? Those who do quick back-of-the-envelope math skip most warranties, because a few replacements over time will cost little by comparison.
6. You’re not a true grown-up until you know how to tip. It’s incredible how many intelligent, educated adults are afraid to calculate the tip at a restaurant. It just isn’t that hard to divide by five to get 20 percent for a great server, and by 6 to get 16.67 percent for someone less helpful. By the way, women in particular tend to be guilty of ducking the tip task: in my own informal study, it’s running at about 87 percent. Ladies, in begging for help with the tip, we’re failing to convince people — including men — that women are bright, capable, employable people. We also aren’t setting a proud example for girls who look to us as their role models.
7. Simple math can help you make healthier choices. A Starbucks Frappuccino has around 430 calories. It takes four and a half hours of walking to burn that off — about half a workday. Those who run the numbers behind obesity might just skip the coffee. Same thing with sugar and the diabetes scourge: we’re supposed to eat a limited amount of processed sugar a day, about 2 desserts’ worth. But one can of Coke has a lot of sugar too and virtually wipes out anyone’s chocolate quota for the day. If we do math, we might make different, happier choices.
8. Being penny wise, not pound foolish really is good advice. The same concept of leverage applies to saving money. If you cut your monthly coffee consumption by two-thirds, but it’s only one percent of your total budget, you won’t save much money. If your rent eats up half your budget, that’s the one to tackle.
9. Calibrating your time will save you time. Sure, maybe you can drive 72 miles an hour instead of 68 by weaving in and out of lanes. But at that rate, you have to drive about 30 miles just to save one minute. The effort (and risk) probably aren’t worth it. You could sidestep the one really long red light in your neighborhood and save just as much time that way.
10. Math allows you to figure out how valuable your time really is. Almost every parent has had to volunteer for a school fundraiser, tying bows around auction items for hours. The gala raises money and everyone feels good, but if someone counted up our hours of work, would we even crack minimum wage? Airport security lines, bad traffic merges, the DMV — they all persist because no one counts up the cost of consuming so many people’s time.
11. It’s important to be aware of financial realities. More than 20 percent of Americans believe winning the lottery is the most practical way for them to save large amounts of money. The fact is, if you drive five miles to a convenience store, buy a lottery ticket, and drive home, you’re actually more likely to die on the trip than win the lottery. Gambling, random drawings… we need to recognize that we’re spending on mere entertainment, and that money is never coming back.