Don’t Drink the Flavor Aid
Okay, boys and girls. Time for a pop quiz.
Question 1. What cyanide-laced drink did 913 members of the Peoples Temple consume on November 18, 1978, as part of the largest mass murder-suicide in modern history?
If you said Kool-Aid, well, you’d be in good company. Most Americans think that that was the drink of choice in Jonestown, and it’s the reason for the idiom, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.” (More on that in a moment.) In fact, members of the cult consumed Flavor Aid, but media outlets at the time and revisionist history since have used Kool-Aid because of its status as a more genericized trademark.
Question 2. Why does Kool-Aid have a hyphen but Flavor Aid does not?
That question is rhetorical. Damned if I know. Ostensibly, the unnecessary hyphen in Kool-Aid is a marketing gimmick, like the removal of the period in Dr Pepper, the inclusion of the backwards R in Toys Я Us, or the use of the numeral 4 in Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks.
Question 3. Why do educators, policymakers, and other adults continually offer Kool-Aid to math students?
Not literally. Let me explain what I mean.
“Drinking the Kool-Aid” is a figure of speech that refers to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination. Wikipedia says, “It could also refer to knowingly going along with a doomed or dangerous idea because of peer pressure.”
In math class, we offer Kool-Aid every time we tell students how important some mathematical topic is, how useful it will be to them in the future, or how knowing it will prepare them for a fantastic career.
When was the last time you were asked to add fractions at a job interview?
When I was a student teacher at West Mifflin High School, one of the teachers made the following statement to a student:
Unless you become a math teacher, you’re never gonna use most of what we teach you.
I hated that statement. Still do. But I’ve come to appreciate its honesty.
At the time, I was an optimistic 23-year-old. All I could think was, “Then why are you teaching it?” Now, I’m a cynical 44-year-old, and I know that he had little choice… students were going to be tested on it, whether he thought it was relevant or not.
How do we offer the Kool-Aid? Lots of ways.
An algebra student asks, “When will I ever need to factor a trinomial in real life?” Teachers often respond with answers like, “You’ll use it when you get to chemistry or physics,” or perhaps they’ll offer, “It can be used in area and construction problems. For instance, what if you know that the floor of a rectangular building is 1,344 square feet and its length is 20 feet greater than its width? Then you could use the equation w2 + 20w – 1344 = 0 to find the length and width.”
The simplistic trinomials presented in a typical Algebra I curriculum are not what you’ll find when you get to physics. There, you’ll be confronted with -16x2 + 25x + 42 = 0, which can’t be factored easily.
And if you’re ever on a construction site and someone gives you the math problem about length and width that’s described above, you should do two things. First, punch that person in the face. Second, while they’re tending to their bloody nose, ask them how they know that the length is 20 feet greater than the width and that the area is 1,344 square feet if they didn’t actually measure the damned building.
But it’s not just teachers who offer mathematical Kool-Aid to students. Policymakers do it all the time, too.
The Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM) contain topics that should have been removed from the curriculum a long time ago. For instance, students are still expected to learn long division (6.NS.B.2), even though it’s an antiquated paper-and-pencil skill that — let’s be honest — no one uses anymore. Your smartphone can do the job just fine, yet CCSSM still gives it a place in the curriculum.
In defense of Common Core, the standard says that students should divide by “using the standard [long division] algorithm,” though it is referenced only one time in Grade 6 and then never mentioned again. Perhaps they’re not that serious about it being a staple in students’ mathematical diet. (Based on my experience, I’d bet that someone on the standards writing committee vehemently argued for its inclusion despite repeated objections, and it was included just to quell the discussion.)
And lest we be too quick to blame educators and politicians, your typical, run-of-the-mill, do-right-by-your-kids parents are equally at fault. What do they do?
- They buy books like Skippyjon Jones Shape Up, which does nothing more than teach shape names without understanding (a better option is this free shapes book from Chrisopher Danielson, Which One Doesn’t Belong?).
- They use resources like Bedtime Math to perpetuate the myth that story problems with keywords and no extraneous information is what math looks like in the real world.
- They tell their kids that fractions are important because you’ll use them in baking, yet they fail to realize that there are over 400,000 different recipes for German Chocolate Cake alone that can be found online, thereby proving that fractions aren’t that big a deal, since lots of different fractions result in yummy desserts and, if you need to double a recipe, you don’t have to know how to add or multiply fractions, you just need to use each measuring cup twice.
The counterargument isn’t that the specific skill will be necessary, but the way of thinking associated with that topic is an important life skill. I’m as much a fan of the phrase “habits of mind” as the next guy, but does anyone really believe that the thinking associated with finding common denominators will increase a student’s quality of life?
More Kool-Aid, as far as I’m concerned.
So, what can we do? First of all, use authentic problems in your classroom, and show students the value of creating a mathematical model (and then improving it) instead of just providing models into which they substitute values or assign measurements. Conversely, stop using fabrications that include a real-world context only to make students do math that no one in their right mind would ever do.
Next, stop teaching things that don’t need to be taught. Dr. Henry Giroux once told me, “To thine own self be true, even if it means being a troublemaker.” Be a troublemaker! Tell your principal that you refuse to teach trinomial factoring on the grounds that it violates the fourth amendment. Tell her that forcing kids to use substitution or elimination to solve a system of equations — just because that’s what creators of the state test are trying to assess — is lunacy if guess-and-check is a more reasonable strategy. And for Pete’s sake, don’t even think about pawning off Ceva’s theorem on unsuspecting geometry students as a potentially useful piece of information. (It’s not, and you know it.)
Finally, be honest to yourself and your students. When a freshman in your algebra class asks, “When are we ever going to use this?” look him in the eye and say, “Probably never, but it’ll be on the state test.”
Yeah, that answer will leave a bad taste in your mouth and in your student’s mouth, too. But you can wash it away with a nice, tall glass of Kool-Aid.