Episode 001: Time Bombs, Cow Tipping, and American Mathematics Education

Main Talking Points in this Podcast

  • How American Middle Schools are not up to par with Japanese Middle Schools, and if there is anything we can do about it.
  • Is there such a thing as an Asian philosophy of Mathematics Education?  If not, who cares?
  • Ways that time bombs and cow tipping can aid students learning of math.

References and Links

  • Leung, Frederick. 2001. In Search of an East Asian Identity in Mathematics Education. Educational Studies in Mathematics 47, no. 1 (May 29): 35-51. doi:10.1023/A:1017936429620.
  • Sawyer, W.W. MATHEMATICS, EMOTIONS AND THINGS. http://www.marco-learningsystems.com/pages/sawyer/things.htm.
  • Schaub, Maryellen, and David P. Baker. 1991. Solving the Math Problem: Exploring Mathematics Achievement in Japanese and American Middle Grades. American Journal of Education 99, no. 4: 623-42.

Author: Nick Horton

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  1. I just listened to the first episode, wonderful work guys! Engaging, educational, and guffaw-funny.

    While I don’t have a disdain for numeracy, I never quite learned math the way my public educational system was set up to teach it. I think it was (in part) this discrepancy between my learning style and the accepted teaching style that directed me away from “Math” and ultimately into Art. I just wasn’t having fun in the solutions to the problems. Finding fun puzzles to solve is how one finds lifelong interests.

    Interestingly, I think there is a similar disdain for Artistic practice. The reasons individuals often cite for their lack of artistic literacy—no natural aptitude, a lack of sense of play, etc.—seem to mirror complaints about Math. Those who practice and teach art seem to claim that just about everyone can become Art literate, it just requires a specific kind of obsessiveness to begin pushing the boundaries of the practice.

    So, what is the root cause of the similarity? Why do fields like Art and Math that initially seem so dissimilar share such similar prejudices over their bar of entry?

    I’m eager for the next episode, when can I expect it?

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks for the comment Jeff,

      Sorry for the late reply. It’s finals season, and we’ve gotten a bit slammed. But, never fear, the next episode is coming this weekend.

      Let me see if I can attempt an answer to some of your questions. My own mother is a college Art professor, and she and I have had similar conversations. it does seem true that art, music, math, and I’d add complex athletic endeavors, share a core. At the core they all require one to struggle through periods of inability. No one knows how to play the piano the first time they sit down. Even Mozart had to practice. They all require practice, not just memorization (which most other subjects are based on).

      Why do fields like art and math seem so dissimilar at first? I’d say that has a lot to do with presentation. Art class is always presented as fun, and there is little pressure involved. We don’t as a society require that everyone be able to do accurate life drawings. So, kids don’t have to worry so much if they aren’t initially good at it. In fact, they can always be bad at it, and not feel like a failure in life.

      In math, we have a lot of standards that start early. If you make it to 6th grade and can’t add and subtract, we’ve got a problem. The downside of these standards, is that the pressure sucks all the fun out of it. Working problems stops being like a fun puzzle and becomes genuine work! At the early stages of development, this is dangerous, because you create a permanent negative association in the mind of the kid that I’m not sure we can erase.

      The connection between math and art is huge. Our own math department is loaded with “ex” musicians and artists (my self included) who somehow found themselves drawn to mathematics.

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  2. I just finished listening to this podcast and just wanted to give my two cents’ worth on education and asians.

    I grew up in Singapore, which probably is equally competitive in math and science. I think we don’t do the whole ‘let’s do math in groups’ and peer teaching because…we do it. As in, we have so much homework that invariably, we end up doing our work together, or help each other understand the material better. On top of that, peer pressure does drive us to better ourselves. I remember ‘competing’ with other students to get better test scores – and that means actually knowing what the teacher was saying and being able to apply them.

    However, because we actually love and care for each other, we never really let that peer pressure do us any harm. It may be just that the class wants to do better comparatively to other classes (we stick to one classroom, so my classmates are the same 25 people every day for 2 years), but I do believe that we want our friends to succeed in their high school career. It is not uncommon for us to stay after school ends just to work on our homework, individually or in groups.

    And while my teachers never placated their students when they did badly, nor did they jeer at you, they oftentimes stayed behind too, sacrificing their time to help us on whatever work we needed help in.

    I left my high school at the US equivalent of 10th grade and by then we were already doing calculus. I do believe the one thing that is unfortunate about the schooling system there is that we get so focused on the 4 or 5 subjects by the time we graduate from high school (down from 8-11 subjects at 10th grade) that we miss out on other important subjects. I.e., if one chooses to do math, by the time they graduated from high school they would be past the calc 4 level in that of an American university, but at the same time, not having taken, say, literature, would be quite clueless in analyzing a piece of text from a play. There are a minority that just seems to be brilliant in all subjects, but they are few and far between.

    All in all, I think both systems need a bit of each other. I believe the testing in the States has to be more standardized and actually challenging to the students, and to banish the whole notion that math is hard (I’ve tutored students that were shaking really hard when trying to solve a simple algebraic equation) when it really isn’t. Maybe one of the things that people here do to placate students is the most harmful – ‘it’s okay, the subject matter is hard, just take your time’ – when the subject matter is not hard at all. I believe that the students have the potential to do math, some may even enjoy it. They just have to not be frightened (and convinced that they should be frightened) of something I consider amazingly frustrating but fun. I believe that asians would also benefit with more fun ‘let’s make a time bomb’ stuff in class, but I do believe that would be more easily implemented than convincing a whole nation that math is fun.


    Post a Reply
    • Great perspective! Thanks Hilary. I love hearing how people’s experiences were who went through different systems than the one here in the states. I can see your point about the “focus” becoming a problem. If one is great at one or two subjects by the end of highschool but is totally clueless about the rest, that isn’t a very good “general” education.

      You’re right, I think. Both systems could learn from each other.

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  3. I happened across your site from the kickstarter page for punk mathematics, and wanted to share my experience with math in high school.

    I never had an issue with math, and for the most part it made a lot of sense to me and I enjoyed learning it. Algebra II is where I hit the wall, and listening to your podcast brought me back to why I had such and issue that year.

    I remember months of rote memorization of formulas, balancing equations, and learning concepts like “F.O.I.L.” (First, Outside, Inside, Last). The problem was not that I wasn’t learning, it was that I didn’t know why I was learning.

    I could see why I might need earth science. Hypothetically hiking through the woods and impressing a member of the opposite sex by saying “If I am not mistaken, this rock is Obsidian, there must have been an ancient volcano in this region…” *cue sexy music*

    While reciting the Pythagorean theorem would leave the math chicks unimpressed and possibly lead to blank stares from the rest of the population, at least I knew what I could do with it. I could imagine myself one day staring at something triangular and having a friend ask how we could figure out the length of the “long part”.

    When I graduated into Algebra II however, that connection to the real world was severed. There were even examples where we would just balance out the equation and not solve it, because we had apparently done the part we needed to learn.

    Finally, after feeling my mathematical grip with reality slipping, one day the teacher asked if there were any questions, to which I raised my hand in class and said “When would we ever actually use this in the real world?” Her response was “Unless you are an engineer or mathematician, you probably won’t.” Certain neither of those paths laid ahead of my in the future, I asked if I could leave. She wasn’t pleased.

    The problem is that due to my disenchantment with Algebra II, I missed out on moving into things like physics. At the time I wanted to have nothing to do with it because I was led to believe that it was just even harder more complicated Algebra II. Years later when I read up on physics on my own, I had no issues with it at all, because it has real world implications that I could concretely wrap my head around.

    Now was that what prevented me from being a scientist, engineer, or mathematician? Not at all. But I think it does back up your theory that the lab base work, where real problems need to be solved, is a better way to teach some of the more advanced concepts.

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  4. As a Canadian in his early 20’s, I’m glad I went through school when I did, since it’s going downhill fast. My year was one of the last to have any calculus in high school in Ontario, only differentiation, and two years earlier, they’d had integration as well. Years of government cutbacks and constant pressure from students and parents to dumb down the curriculum have really taken a toll.

    Sadly, it’s not limited to elementary and high school either. Universities are constantly dumbing down their curricula, thinking they’re catering to the people doing the worst, instead of actually giving students interesting challenges. I find the idea of dumbing things down so people do better very counterproductive, since they just end up with the students who would have done well not caring anymore and thus doing poorly. I think that schools should instead be giving students larger challenges, to show them the amazing things that can be accomplished with their newfound knowledge.

    For example, I remember when I was taught about eigenvalues and eigenvectors and thinking “Why exactly should any of us care?” They never gave us any reason to care about them, so most people didn’t. Now I’m working simulating quantum computer systems for a living, so I deal with them all the time and understand how most matrix operations can be expressed simply just in terms of the eigenvalues and eigenvectors. They also show up prominently in computer vision and mechanical engineering, but we didn’t get told this in algebra class; we were just told to memorize and not to understand or care. *sigh*

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