Kimberly at Number 2 Pencil scoffs at a breathless story about a seventh grader “discovering” a new way to solve math problems using negative numbers. It ain’t new to people who know anything about math, which apparently excludes the girl’s teacher and the reporter.
Brenda of Isomorphisms mocks a similar story about a 16-year-old girl who’s allegedly revolutionized math with her new “Lizzie Method” for solving quadratic equations. The story says the girl “has the math world spinning.” Or yawning.
Responding to an e-mail inquiry, the (University of Michigan math) professor writes, “This method was the standard method taught when I was in school, and I suspect that in many parts of the USA it is still the standard method.”
The Lizzie Method works well for equations with small numbers, which are common in basic high school math. Brenda, who teaches math, is frustrated:
Imagine if a thirteen year old science student tries to dissolve salt in oil, and fails. Or if a ninth grader writes a short story that makes use of flashbacks, rather than exposing the events chronologically. Neither of these would make it into any newspaper. Neither would be portrayed as earth-shattering events. Neither’s teacher would be lauded for not giving their pupil a failing grade. People are familiar enough with science and literature that they tell the difference between inquisitive, creative kids, and world-changing inventions. Yet innumeracy is so deeply ingrained that a teenager’s slight departure from the a small set of methods for doing mathematics is beyond the grasp of her school’s teachers and her city’s journalists.
I can’t speak for teachers, but most journalists are profoundly innumerate. At the Mercury News, our best number-crunching reporter would circulate an occasional reminder for colleagues about the meaning of 100 percent or the dangers of looking at an increase without mentioning the base number; sometimes he’d teach a little lesson on fractions. And people were grateful for the help. If you look at the story on Lizzie, it has loads of color. But it’s clearly written by someone who thinks solving quadratic equations is a job for Albert Einstein.