"Getting" Math


In May 1959 English physicist and author C.P. Snow wondered if he asked “What do you mean by mass, or acceleration?" whether 1 in 10 highly educated adults - people who knew Romeo and Juliet for example - could answer correctly. Snow pointed out this “is the scientific equivalent of asking, 'Can you read?' ” His fear was that a “great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.” Other scientists hotly disputed Snow's claim that the two academic cultures of literature and science did not understand or even respect each other. Some questioned whether it even mattered if poets could calculate terminal velocities or recall the periodic table.

Ironically enough, Show looked longingly at America’s Sputnik-inspired drive to improve K-12 math and science education as the example for the UK to follow. Whatever the case was 50-odd years ago, we’ve since lost our way in America.

We accept, even at times embrace, innumeracy in ways that we would never treat illiteracy. At our recent parent gathering two different Brooklyn dads, both high school math teachers, told me many of their 10th graders can’t add fractions. One of them said, “I ask myself ‘how’d these kids get past 5th grade?’”

Randall Headshot
Randall Headshot

Supporting an initiative to encourage woman to pursue science careers, First Lady Michelle Obama told her audience “It starts with lighting the spark for science and math in elementary school.” But then she went on to willingly admit her own ignorance: “I know that for me, I’m a lawyer because I was bad at these subjects … All lawyers in the room you know it’s true.” Her self-deprecating remark received plenty of laughter.

Jonathan Wai, a Duke University scientist suggests we need a “Math Police” akin to The Grammar Police, a self-appointed group with 30,000 likes on Facebook. If they work well, the result might be as follows:

A famous person is speaking at a high profile event. After the speaker jokes about being bad at math, the audience does not laugh but instead gives the cold hard silence of disapproval and reacts in shock that someone so famous is bragging about her mathematical incompetence. It would react the same way if the same person announced she could not read.

The Way Forward

At ICS we’re not waiting for the cops. Our Board of Trustees is our built-in Math Police. We’re confident that there are only a tiny number of students who are unable to “do math” at grade level. We believe in these cases the explanation probably lies in a particular cognitive disability, which we will address with their families and our special education staff.

John Mighton, the developer of our math curriculum, became a playwright after he was told he was not good at math. But at 31, after a decade working as a math tutor, he realized the problem was not him, it was math instruction. The research on JUMP program he has built speaks for itself. JUMP by the way, is an acronym for Junior Unidentified Math Prodigies.


If your child ever tells you “I’m not good at math,” we’ll want to know about it. We’re going to look to our instruction and determine how to better support your child and his or her teacher to deliver the lesson in a way that leads to success.

We further believe that as with literacy, a large part of math success lies in children’s background knowledge. When children move facts into background knowledge it frees up their brains to take on more challenging cognitive tasks. A recent example from my (8th grade) son’s algebra class: simplifying the square root of 75 [√75]. Embedded is the assumption that the students know 25 and 3 are factors of 75, so the problem can be re-written √25 x √3. Since 25 is a perfect square, they quickly determine the answer is 5√3. (No, my son, who has an 89 average in math, and knows the factors of 75, did not know how to do this.)

To build this kind of comfort and proficiency in the earliest grades, we’re looking at a number of different technology tools, software in table computers that helps solidify their fact proficiency, and provides teachers with timely and accurate feedback about where instruction is or is not working. Other technology will help teachers deliver math and science lessons in ways that engage students more fully.  If you’re interested in helping us explore this further, drop me an email.

Parents Count too

And, if you don’t “get” math, fear not. We’ll support parents too. Our friend Jess Lahey, mother of two, middle school teacher, law school grad, and author points out even adults can learn math. And put her money where her mouth is when she re-enrolled in Algebra I last year.