Note: I’ve broken this interview up into two parts. This is the first part, and it focuses more on Jeffrey Bennett’s work as a non-fiction author. Click here for part two, which discusses Bennett’s children’s books, and how his books were the first children’s books read in space!
Jeffrey Bennett is a researcher, educator, author, and one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever heard of. He has a Ph.D. and M.S. in astrophysics, as well as a B.A. in biophysics, and he taught one of the first college courses on quantitative thinking in 1987. Bennett has also taught preschoolers and every level up through graduate school students, and was the Visiting Senior Scientist at NASA Headquarters for two years. He will also be the “Nifty Fifty” speaker at the 2014 USA Science and Engineering Festival.
As an author, Bennett has written three trade adult books: Math for Life, On the Cosmic Horizon, and Beyond UFOs. His textbook about quantitative reasoning is used by over 50,000 high school and college students every year. And he is the author of The Max Science Adventures series, which were the first children’s books to be read in space, by astronaut Alvin Drew during STS-133, the final mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery. You can see the video here. On December 15 of this year, five books in the series will launch as part of the program Story Time from Space (in partnership with CASIS), where astronauts will film themselves reading the books from space as well as scientific demonstrations to help kids learn.
Bennett kindly offered to answer questions about his love of math, the importance of math in everyday life, and his children’s series.
Q. How did you become interested in quantitative reasoning?
J.B.: I’ve been teaching since I was a teenager, and it didn’t take me long to realize that our schools not only do a poor job of teaching mathematical skills but almost entirely skip teaching the broader range of “math for life” reasoning ideas. I therefore started including quantitative reasoning in my own curriculum materials as far back as in a math and science summer school that I first ran when I was 18, and later incorporated similar ideas into materials for my college courses in astronomy. So when the University of Colorado asked me to help develop their quantitative reasoning curriculum (in 1987), I jumped at the opportunity.
Q. Why do you think so many people feel they’re “bad at math”? What are the implications of that?
J.B.: Few people would ever announce that they can’t read very well or are unable to think logically, yet it’s considered socially acceptable to say that you’re “bad at math.” But given how important math is to virtually everything we do in modern life, being “bad at math” is really just another way of saying that you don’t understand how to function in the modern world — and we see this playing out in the way poor mathematical thinking has led to global problems like the recent financial crisis and personal problems like people spending money on scams or gambling.
Q. What are some other issues that can be helped or solved through applying quantitative thinking?
J.B.: I think the easier question is what are the issues that cannot be helped or solved through applying quantitative thinking — and I can’t think of any. That’s why “math for life” is so important, because you really can’t live an informed life unless you develop your skills of quantitative reasoning.
Q. How is “math for life” different from the math learned in school?
J.B.: There’s math involved in virtually everything we do in modern life, from personal finance to choosing a health care plan to deciding how best to deal with national issues such as the federal budget, energy, and climate change. But the traditional school curriculum focuses only on one very narrow aspect of this math, which is the arithmetic and algebra used in calculations. As an analogy, the way we teach math today is rather like teaching literature by focusing only on the mechanics of reading and writing.
Q. What is your opinion on the Common Core State Standards for math education?
J.B.: I really like what I see in the new standards. As I discuss in Math for Life, big problems with mathematics education include not only a lack of emphasis on quantitative reasoning but a poor job in teaching the mechanics of arithmetic and algebra. Both of these problems are addressed in the new standards. Of course, the key to success will be in how well the vision of the standards is turned into reality in the classroom, and that’s the truly difficult part. So while I like the standards a lot, I remain very concerned that they won’t be implemented successfully unless we put a lot more effort into getting high-quality teachers and combatting the social acceptability of people saying they are “bad at math.”
Q. What are some ways to inspire kids to get more excited about math?
J.B.: I get this question a lot, and I think a key part of the answer is that we need to turn the question around. As humans, we are all born with an innate affinity for math — every kid loves learning how to count and nearly all enjoy math at young ages. The problem is that instead of building on this natural love of math, we tend to quash it. As I explain in Math for Life, the single biggest factor in quashing this interest is the social acceptance of being “bad at math.” In other words, when kids hear respected adults speaking of being “bad at math” with no hint of shame or embarrassment, it teaches them that this kind of attitude is acceptable, and often makes them acquire the attitude themselves. That’s why I say that being “bad at math” is a contagious social disease. So if we want to keep kids inspired about math, the key first step is to get parents, teachers, and other adults to stop thinking that it’s any more acceptable to be “bad at math” than to be bad at reading, bad at writing, or bad at thinking.
Beyond that, we need to make sure that math is taught better. Without going into a lot of detail, I’ll focus on two key ideas: (1) While we certainly need dedicated “math time” in elementary school during which kids can learn and practice mathematical skills, that can’t be the end of the story. Instead, we need to show kids that the math they learn during “math time” can also be used to help them in all their other subject areas as well; unfortunately, very few teachers ever show their students any math outside of “math time.” (2) Going along with that idea, we need to show students that math is much more than just numbers and equations. It is a tool for thinking, which is why we often talk about “quantitative reasoning.” Just this morning when I received these questions, I also saw an article (in the Chronicle for Higher Education) lamenting the fact that college students are so lacking in quantitative reasoning skills. We must address this problem at every level of education, starting in elementary school and continuing through college. I have a number of more specific suggestions in the Epilogue of Math for Life.