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John Thompson: An American Who Stinks at Math Wowed by Elizabeth Green's Explanation

MathI was slow to follow the link to Why Do Americans Stink at Math?, in the New York Times Magazine, and I did not see it as a "must read" until I realized it was written by the Chalkbeat's Elizabeth Green.

I’m bad at math and I don’t see Americans’ problems with math as that big of a deal. I’m much more concerned with the challenge of improving reading comprehension in the 21st century.

As I understand it, math is a precise language, combined with logic. Few teachers are prepared to holistically teach this language or explain to students what the purpose and meaning of the subject is. Besides, contemporary American culture is not at its best in terms of valuing non-English languages, much less translating words and concepts into numbers and symbols.

Green grabbed me when citing John Allen Paulos’s diagnosis of innumeracy— “the mathematical equivalent of not being able to read.” She then reports that on the NAEP, “three-quarters of fourth graders could not translate a simple word problem about a girl who sold 15 cups of lemonade on Saturday and twice as many on Sunday into the expression ‘15 + (2×15).’”

Interestingly, and convincingly, Green shows that children in the Third World, like Americans who used to work in low-paid industrial jobs, can have an advantage with math in comparison to post-modern Americans. With too much of today's work, numbers are disconnected from physical reality and there is no apparent relationship between concrete objects and metrics. For instance, dairy farm workers with only an elementary school education had to learn to think mathematically to do their jobs. When unschooled workers were off work and better-educated office workers filled in for them, productivity declined for that reason.

Green explains that high-quality math instruction is another example of an American idea being further developed in Japan, as we see our skills deteriorate. She describes the methods of Akihiko Takahashi, one of Japan’s leading math teachers, and his frustrated efforts to improve math instruction in the United States.

Takahashi is the teaching version of the “Iron Chef,” of the television show. But, America has no cultural equivalent of that public persona, and that helps explain the fruitlessness of much of our efforts to fight innumeracy. Math just doesn’t seem to be that important to many or most Americans.

More disturbing is the failure of Americans to produce our version of jugyokenkyu, where teachers observe, critique, and learn from each other’s practice. It is unfortunate that American teachers get little or no feedback regarding their practice, but that also is understandable. Japanese teachers teach about 500 fewer hours each school year, and that leaves them with time to prepare lessons, revise them, and learn from each other.

What is most disturbing is that so many American have become passive learners. Problem-solving and creativity are not as valued in American classrooms. Japanese students are more than four times as likely to initiate a method for solving a problem than Americans. Green writes, “Almost half of Japanese students’ time was spent doing work that the researchers termed “invent/think.” (American students spent less than 1 percent of their time on it.)”

Twenty years ago, I assumed that American schools could not get very far ahead of our overall culture in terms of nurturing the curiosity and thinking skills necessary for a dynamic 21st century democracy. But, I assumed that our schools would move incrementally toward a system where our brand of jugyokenkyu would improve instruction, and encourage creativity, as society becomes even more inventive.

Had the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars wasted on test and punish been devoted to better teaching of math and other languages and other ways of thinking, our society would have moved, incrementally at least, towards a culture that embraces dynamic teaching. Regardless of her specific conclusions, I bet Green’s book will take us a step closer to the type of discussions and teaching, thinking, and learning that we need.-JT(drjohnthompson)Image via.  


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The average IQ of the Japanese population is about 107-108. What is feasible in Japan is not necessarily feasible in the US.

I take it that I should give up on learning math better

If your IQ is much below 107-108 the expected return from trying to learn very much mathematics is pretty low.

I appreciate your omniscience from seeing like a state to seeing like a god

The relevance of you reply to what I said is obscure. I know nothing of your IQ if that is what is bothering you. My statement is a conditional statement which happens to be true.


I am a Japanese and have read the NY Times article "Why Do Americans Stink at Math?", which discusses a lot about Japan.

However, I have to say that Ms. Green's account of Japanese education is very misleading, as pointed out also by Dr. Tom Loveless in the Brown Center Chalkboard blog.

So I wrote her a letter and put it in my blog: http://jukuyobiko.blogspot.jp/2014/08/big-doubts-on-ny-times-article-why-do.html

I would like to correct misunderstanding, because it is very sad to see that many people are discussing on the basis of the misleading report.

Great point. You know far more than I on this subject. I'm not qualified to critique the difference between Loveless and Green on this subject but I bet you know better than both.

I didn't want to get too carried away on my disclaimers. Instead I wanted to focus on Green's points. She's trying to show that Americans can build a better teacher, especially in regard to math and elementary schools. I don't completely agree with her methodology and conclusions. Now, after reading her entire book, I have even more respect for her analysis, even though you make a great point.

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