Kids today: Idongedit

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Time for tirade about declining math skills

By John Pawlak

Idongedit. It’s my students’ favorite word. You have to let it drip out of your mouth when you say it. Idongedit. And when you say it, it helps if you slowly tilt your head sideways, then look upwards and stare at the ceiling.  
Anyway, that seems to be the correct protocol.
It’s been a while since I’ve spewed out a tirade about the declining math skills in our country.  
With the school year behind us, I thought now would be as good as time as any to rant (as if I need a special time to do that?).
Okay, so now here’s one of my standard “somewhat related” stories.  
I’m in a Starbucks and the line is rather long, and I find myself passing the time chatting with some guy about my despair over how so many kids today can’t do basic math without a calculator.  
He agreed and told me that when he and his coworkers go out to lunch, “the guys have to use their cell phone calculators to figure out the tip.”   
So in jest I said to him, “Well you know what they say. Fifty percent of the people in this country have an IQ in the bottom half.”
He grimaced a bit, furling his brow and said, “Naw, it can’t be that bad.”
In his defense, the line was rather long and maybe he just needed that caffeine infusion. But it  does prompt me to contemplate the true nature of why so many people these days seem to be math challenged.
Is it the Greek letters?  Is the thought of having to work with phi, chi and psi really that distressing?  
Maybe all those stories of violent Greek armies hacking up their conquests dilute the enthusiasm one might have for beta, zeta, eta, theta and feta?  
(Oops.  Nix the feta.  That’s a cheese).
Perhaps it would help if we used something less threatening like Mesopotamian cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphics or Phoenician script.  
They’re kind of cute looking and they can be fun to pronounce.  
However, we might have to teach our kids how to chisel stone to get the format just right.
Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with strange looking symbols.  
After all, did you ever see what a typical text message looks like? Even a trained cryptographer would have difficulty understanding a text conversation between two teenagers.
Or maybe it’s because fewer and fewer people are wearing watches (since cell phones show the time).  
Many young people have trouble telling time from an analog clock.  
Then again, they don’t seem to understand digital clocks either.
And of course, there’s my favorite nemesis, the black hole of intelligence, the electronic brain drain, the golden aqua regia of mental ability — the calculator. I don’t allow my students to use calculators in class.  The mother of one of my students wrote me an e-mail telling me that she had planned on complaining to the school about my policy.  
But she wrote, “However, one night I was watching my daughter work on some math problems and on one problem she had to multiply a number by 10.”  
Her daughter then pulled out her calculator.  The mother wrote me, “Now I understand!  Thank you.”
But math challenged mentality is not limited to students.  
Consider the recent proclamations of ignorance by our county council.  
They paid more than $300,000 to consultants to tell us how to “calm traffic” and “improve throughput” on Trinity Drive.  
Their solution? Reduce four lanes to two and spend more than $40 million to plant trees and build roundabouts.
Now, even my best algebra students can’t solve this one.  Reduce the number of lanes. Slow traffic down.  Increase throughput.  $40 million?
I know that the council gets a thrill out of spending our money, but $40 million?  
Increased throughput by slowing traffic down in half the lanes, planting trees and running around in circles?  
Uh, um, uh, er, Idongedit.  Hang on while I get my calculator out.  
There’s too many “multiply by 10” computations for my brain to figure this one out.

 John Pawlak
 Los Alamos columnist