Computer Geniuses, Simple Math Idiots

We've raised a generation of techno-kids who barely get by 2 plus 2 without a calculator.

Published on: September 26, 2011

Education is in the eye of the beholder. What are taxpayers getting for dollars invested in public education, and what are parents getting for dollars invested in higher educations? From experiences with my own kids and from volunteering to work with kids though youth groups and judging teams, it appears we've raised a generation which can text, run Facebook, pull up answers to weather questions or almost any trivia on their 'smart phones' in a matter of seconds. What they can't do is figure square feet in a room, figure out how often you should empty your septic tank based on simple math, or determine how much a corn field is yielding without looking at the yield monitor.

Are we getting our money's worth? I guess it depends who you talk to - if all you're concerned about is the future, which promises to be full of more smart machines and high-powered technology, then maybe we are. If you think we ought to be turning out kids who know how to run those devices efficiently, but yet think for themselves as well, then maybe we're not.

I'm from the old school, because I grew up in the '50s and '60s taught old school ways. Fortunately, I learned arithmetic before 'new math' and its wave of being the best thing since sliced bread took over. Back on the farm, I cut my teeth on trying to figure out how many bushels per acre a field was going to make. I thrived on hoping this crop was better than last year, and I wanted to know right away.

We didn't have yield monitors. Don't get me wrong. I think yield monitors are tremendous technology which can help modern farming in a number of ways. But they remove the necessity of trying to estimate square feet combined vs. square feet remaining, and computing bushels harvested vs. what should be left to harvest.

Back when they combined around the field with pull-type combines, now that was tough. The factor of how many more feet you're harvesting on the outside rounds is hard to calculate, even for someone doing it with a calculator, let alone in your head.

I took pride on my calculations, done in my head or on paper with a pencil, using long division and multiplication. Usually I would come close to what a field made before my dad ever brought the last scale ticket home from the elevator.

Try asking a high school student today how many square foot are in a room. You'll get a blank look. Then you'll get 'how do you calculate square feet?' Once you tell them, they'll ask for the calculator, or pull one up on their smart phone.

I coach soils judging. One of the simple calculations they're asked to do is to determine how often the septic tank should be pumped and involves division problems like 10 divided by 3, or 7 divided by 4. You would be surprised how many wrong answers I get, or how many blank stares. And these are from high school students carrying 3.5 and higher grade point averages.

No, I've never used Facebook. I'm sure I will. I've never used the Internet on a smart phone. I probably will. It may take me a while to learn. But I wouldn't trade my ability to do math computations in my head or on paper for the skill of running a smart phone.

What kind of generation have we raised? And they want to quit teaching how to do cursive writing? Are we all about educating kids, or creating mind-numbed robots?

I'm glad we can afford some of the technology out there so my kids can use it. However, it pains me that I still beat them every time if it's a math problem without a calculator. Maybe our legislators ought to take these observations into account before they pass another education bill.

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