words over numbers not an even exchange

0714MEM_JulyCoverFBImagine you’re enjoying hors d’oeuvres and a drink at a cocktail party when the conversation turns to favorite magazines and newspapers, and the person you just met to your left says, “You know, I’ve never been very good at reading.”

That would shock your senses. But what if, instead, the conversation turned to household spending and balancing the checkbook, and the person said: “You know, I’ve never been very good at math”? Somehow, that would seem a lot more acceptable to most of us.

The socially tolerated cognitive double standard is deep. That it’s even acceptable is only because, at least in this country, we’ve come to believe that not having an aptitude for numbers is OK, but being illiterate is a far greater handicap. We’ve drawn a dubious line in the sand, and with a wink and a nod understand that it’s fine to admit the failings of our capacity to learn the fundamentals of mathematics but not the basics of A, B, and C. Holding simultaneous contradictory values is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

Sure most of us can add, subtract, and multiply our way through most of life’s arithmetic challenges, but ask us to balance the checkbook without our cell phone’s calculator and many of us are lost. Or ask someone in the sixth grade to tell you how tall he is in inches and see how long it takes him to calculate the answer.

The anecdote about the cocktail party, although I paraphrased, was one of the intriguing notions discussed at the recent live taping of the ASME Decision Point Dialogues event on STEM education—Critical Thinking, Critical Choices: What Really Matters in STEM. The comment came from Pat Wingert, one of 12 Dialogues participants, who is a former Newsweek journalist and Spencer Fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The focus of her year-long research project at Columbia was STEM education. Wingert now contributes to the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media and has learned a lot about how kids in this country learn—or how poorly they learn STEM subjects in comparison to other countries.

Since the days of Manifest Destiny when as a country we held the strong belief that our mission was to spread our virtues and institutions across the continent, we’ve been proud of our educational system (and to a large measure we should be), so the fact that the STEM-related test scores of our kids pale in comparison with those of youngsters from such global powerhouses as Finland and Singapore really stings.

Momentum has gained in the Obama administration to get kids in the U.S. to be more inspired by science and math and to score higher on tests. But it hasn’t been easy. The conflict points are huge and they have less to do with our kids’ aptitude than with pure economics.

In this issue we include a roundup of the Decision Point Dialogues discussion among STEM thought leaders and moderator John Hockenberry, of public radio’s program The Takeaway. To view the provocative broadcast visit go.asme.org/dialogues.

It may be a cultural uniqueness that we place more emphasis on words than numbers in this country, but the consequences run much deeper than our children’s test scores—and this is no cocktail party joke.

14 Responses to “words over numbers not an even exchange”

  1. 1 Jack Sol-Church
    July 23, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    There are three issues: teaching, testing and being oblivious to the real world.
    Good teachers are a combination of genetics and environment (they can be taught but they have to have the basic desire to help others learn). Good teachers inspire others to learn.
    Testing doesn’t inspire anyone. Testing is necessary to ascertain the level of knowledge that is being imparted and absorbed, but the method currently being used sucks the life out of learning.
    We talk about the teaching and valuing education but continue to focus on the testing.
    The comparison is that of looking at a left handed threaded bolt compared to a right hand threaded bolt.
    We continue to turn the bolt counterclockwise and wonder why it won’t loosen but don’t have the where with all to even question if its a left handed thread. We continue to shorten recess, reduce or cut art and music, lengthen the school day and watch test scores go down. REALLY!!
    And the answer is to figure out how to get more teaching (more hours and more days?) into these kids so they can pass the test better.
    Go back to basic, interesting teaching, fund it well, and figure out how to make the tests real and informative (third grade math tests take longer than college finals).
    Keep it in balance because its currently way out of whack.

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

July 2014

Twitter from John Falcioni

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