Dr. Jeff on Mathematics Education

 Copyright 2009 | About this blog

This is crossposted at the Huffington Post HERE.


Let’s Ban English in School …. Except in English Class

Math is the language of nature. If you yearn to know

how she operates, you must speak her language.

—Dr. Jeff


I wrote this essay because I needed to get something off my chest. It first appeared as a foreword to a Dr. Jeff’s Weekly Challenge posted on June 15, 2009, but I think it’s so important that I decided to commit it to a formal Resource Page here at Blog on the Universe. So here’s my bone to pick—


My first language is English. I have very strong beliefs about how English should be taught in schools. I guess I’m a traditionalist. I also think that my views apply to how any language should be taught in schools around the world.


I think English belongs in English class. Period. You want to speak and read and write English, well do it in an English class. It doesn’t belong in a history class, or a science class, or for that matter a class on economics, art, sociology, psychology, or the law. Let’s keep English where it belongs. It’s just a language. So no English in those other classes. Just sit there and learn the concepts, nuances, big ideas, and emotional content of those subjects through …. osmosis. Think your thoughts toward other members of the class and share brain waves. And please, please … when you do this—DO NOT THINK YOUR THOUGHTS IN ENGLISH!


Am I losing my fans? Is this finally the real Dr. Jeff? What? You think what I said is just absurd? (Good.) You think that English, like any language, is the means by which we express and communicate the richness of our thoughts on all the subjects that address the human condition? Wow, that’s a mouthful. You’ve got me thinking. And please—don’t leave! In my defense, I just thought that English should be treated like we traditionally treat MATH in school. Addition, subtraction, long division, algebra, trigonometry, geometry, calculus, statistics … it often feels like the unwritten decree is “let’s only keep it in the math classes where it belongs!” Why isn’t MATH a natural part of all the subjects taught—as in the case of say …. English?! And the result? Kid to parent, or kid to teacher, or kid to friend: “What will I ever need this for?”


Answer: because without an understanding of and appreciation for MATH you’ll deny yourself the ability to see the richness and majesty of the world around you. A language like English serves as the foundation for our conversations about anything and everything—and so does math. And if that’s not a sufficient answer (it’s sad when it isn’t) then more practically speaking, without math skills, effectively competing in the job markets of the 21st century will be very difficult—because math is everywhere.


This blog is a good example. I’m trying to get across powerful concepts with a seamless fusion of English and math, and for many readers I bet the injection of math is jarring. But the math provides the insight into HOW I’m getting the high impact, “Oh Wow” answers. The math gives you the chance to take OWNERSHIP of the story at a deeper level—because I’m not asking you to take the conclusions on faith. We’re reaching the conclusions together. And the math should be embraced at the same subconscious level as is the English you’re now reading. Why? Because math and English have a great deal in common—


Mathematics is a language. It is the language of nature. If you yearn to know how she operates, you must speak her language. And nature isn’t just found in science class. A human being is a biological entity, and human society is a biological system. All of humanity is part of nature, so all those subjects of importance to human beings are richer if their study includes mathematics. And I’m convinced that our capacity for mathematics is an outgrowth of nature developing the means to understand itself.


English or Estonian or Japanese or any other spoken/written language models our very thoughts. That’s the point of creating them. Mathematics as a language provides a powerful means by which we can model the world around us so that we can understand it and navigate it successfully. (See my The Power of Models page.) Imagine the power you have when you master a spoken/written language AND math!


Finally, math is the only language I know that transcends societies and cultures. It is the language that binds all humanity. So why do we teach our children to treat math as something that is difficult, disconnected, irrelevant, and something to be avoided?


Let’s give math and math education the respect they deserve, so we can provide our children a window on the majesty of the world.


Footnote to reader: I hope you recognize that the whole banning English in school except in English class was a joke, right? I proposed it because it was an absurd, in fact insane position. So why do we do the insane with math?


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14 Responses to “Dr. Jeff on Mathematics Education”

  1. Colin Crawford Says:
    December 18th, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    I am in complete agreement with your observation that mathematics is a language and that an understanding of math is really the only way one can hope to have a more complete appreciation and understanding of the world in which s/he exists. I also agree that the language of math should be integrated into other subjects. However, I must take exception to your statement that English (of French if you’re in France, Spanish if you’re in Spain, etc.) should be limited exclusively to that “class.” In discussing mathematics, itself, or any aspect of nature that requires some understanding of mathematics, one must also use one’s “primary” language, e.g. English, French, Spanish. Cogent and coherent communications require competence in the predominant languages of one’s environment. More specifically, I think it is the very compartmentalization of “subjects” in our system of institutionalized “education” that has led us into our current “predicament.” Mathematics, physics, biology, history, psychology and english (as well as all other “subjects”) do NOT exist in a vacuum yet all are, in essence, “taught” that way. That is, in my view, why so many “students” are turned-off by one subject or another because there is no “meaning” integrated into its study. Just as many Americans have trouble with English or History or Psychology as with Mathematics or Physics or Biology. The same is true regarding how individuals are “programmed and pigeon-holed” as they “advance” from high-school to college to doctoral programs and have their focus and “education” increasingly “niche-oriented.” And THAT is a disservice and detriment to all of us.

  2. DrJeff Says:
    December 18th, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Ok, I had a conversation with Colin after I saw his comment, and I assured him that I do not support … in any way shape or form … banning English in school except in English class. The proposal I put forward is JUST NUTS. Colin, just to make sure folks understand my peculiar brand of sarcasm, I just added a Footnote to the bottom of the essay.

  3. Colin Crawford Says:
    December 18th, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    Thanks for the clarification, Dr. Jeff! 😀 I did have a suspicion your “English in English-class only” statements were a bit facetious but I wasn’t sure. Alas, it has been apparent to me that all too many individuals DO attempt learning solely through osmosis. I’m sure we both know that doesn’t work. :O

  4. linda hahner Says:
    December 18th, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    Dr Jeff, You hit the nail on the head again– with one strong and absolutely elegant “wack”. I am an artist by training. I always laugh when people talk about supporting the arts or teaching art. I think you foster creativity and art by teaching language, math, music, and science. Think about leonardo da vinci. The greatest thinkers of all time have been artists and mathematicians. So, thank you for making your point so correctly and exactly. I look forward to reading more! Linda Hahner

  5. George H Says:
    December 19th, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    Great post. Anyone who thinks you actually wanted to ban English missed the entire point of your essay. Maybe that fact in and of itself validates your frustration– you were equating English and Math, then following a logical path to make a point. Your point could be summed up as P=M. P->Q therefore M->Q.
    In other words, if not using English in other classes is ludicrous, then it is equally ludicrous to not use the language of math because Math and English are equal.

    I agree completely with you in theory. I would extend the argument even further to say that every class should embrace and integrate elements from other disciplines.

    I am not really a “math person,” but I am always looking for practical ways to bring math into my classroom.

    It would be great for you to do a follow up post detailing some specific ways people can do what you are imploring.

    Thanks for writing an interesting piece.

    You = Awesome.

  6. Susan Says:
    December 20th, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    If you’re following me on Twitter, you know I agree with what you wrote. We keep hearing about reading and literacy. Math is everywhere around us, and everything in this world (and out of it) can be connected to math in one way or another. The key to being successful in higher level math is understanding of numbers, and mastery of math facts. What scares me is when I hear some teachers are not confident teaching math because they are not comfortable with it themselves!

  7. Phyllis K Twombly Says:
    December 21st, 2009 at 4:44 am

    My Algebra 11 teacher wasted half the semester with non-algebraic formulas from his university days. Only his pet students could understand it. The rest of us were failing.

    Revenge came suddenly and unexpectedly when he admitted none of his material would be on the provincial exam, then handed out a quiz to see ‘what he actually needed to cover.’ It was all graphing, which I can do in my sleep. His pet students…not so much. “Yes, that’s a triangle, and I’d be happy to show you how to use it.”

  8. Dean Says:
    April 6th, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    “It is the language that binds all humanity”. Music? Art? Dance? There are other disciplines in the same boat.

  9. All_Day_SCI-fi Says:
    April 14th, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    Let’s face facts most people hate math.

    Another fact, most math teachers are lousy at teaching it.

    There is something wrong with Western culture in it’s attitude about math. It is separated from reality and taught in this abstract Never-Never Land form like it doesn’t relate to anything and thinking of it that way is so “intelligent”.

    Stop teaching math in grade school. Teach PHYSICS. Then the physics teacher can teach the math as it relates to the physics and never separate math from reality. Use Ohm’s Law to teach division and multiplication. How many grade school kids don’t know squat about electricity anyway? But every American uses it almost every day. It’s hysterical!

    And use science fiction to teach English.


    What is so great about Shakespeare anyway? I would rather read Lois McMaster Bujold. Bujold had an engineer for a father. It shows compared to all of the sci-fi junk with delusional science, like Neuromancer.

  10. Kimberly Ennico Says:
    April 17th, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    I stumbled upon this gem of an article, entitled “Why You Should Choose Math in High School”, http://www.acm.org/ubiquity/views/v7i11_math.html, where the author lists many reasons why having a good basis in math just helps you in life in so many ways, especially in our computer-filled western lives. It iterates the same theme as you — that learning math goes well beyond the math class. The challenge remains on how to best teach it or how to teach it effectively (which may involve different techniques for different students).

  11. George Says:
    April 18th, 2010 at 10:35 am

    I think that students, upon graduation, should be able to communicate. They should be able to write an essay, they should be able to prepare and give a speech, and they should be able to present their solution to a problem. The more we include math, especially statistics, in other courses, the stronger our students will be. Great article. – George

  12. Matt Guthrie Says:
    April 19th, 2010 at 8:40 am

    Great post. As a math teacher and geek at heart, I wholeheartedly concur. I love those moments when I can weave math into everyday ordinary things, and not just computing the unit price of a slice of bread, with people of all ages. It’s amazing to watch them experience their own “a-ha” at the wonder of nature and the world around for the first time because math was given to them in this way. I dream of a curricular change that enables this one day.

  13. Jason Bedell Says:
    April 19th, 2010 at 8:56 am

    I am a former English teacher (current librarian) and I agree with your main points. I think there are two major issues that need dealing with. First, there is the misconception that math is something scary and other to humanities majors. I had the privilege to double major in math and pre-med in college, so I was able to take relatively high-level math and science classes, at least compared to the other English majors. When I started my education program, literally 9 out 10 pre-service teachers expressed their fear and/or aversion towards math. I often hear social studies and English teachers say that “hate math” or they’re “just not good at math” in front of student. This makes it seem like these are fine points of view. The students pick up on it and their interest in math wanes because of the teacher’s lack of enthusiasm. Second, the way we teach math takes any natural enthusiasm most children have and kills it. I am not critiquing math teachers; rather, they’re hands are tied and they are forced to shove too many concepts down kids’ throats too quickly and at an age where often they are not ready. I recently read this outstanding article on the subject by math teacher Paul Lockhart: http://www.maa.org/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf.
    As an English teacher, I was able to incorporate math; it didn’t happen every day, unfortunately, but neither was it uncommon. Math is unique in that it is both an art and a universal language that can transcend other boundaries. It is shortsighted of us if we overlook it.

  14. Philip Watson Says:
    April 19th, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Subjects should not be taught in a vacuum – we don’t ‘use’ them in a vacuum once we leave school, so why are these strict delineations btwn subjects still so strongly reinforced?

    btw – maths is used in many other subjects – particularly science and technology. I like this blending btwn subjects 🙂

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