To Educate with Purpose

Persecution of Socrates

Two education stories I came across last week will tie together my last couple posts, and offer correctives to the problem of school and rudeness. The first story is a new approach to an old requirement in school. The second story is about empathy.

On Tuesday, NPR ran a story about math. Why do we learn advanced math? To think better, I guess. Logic. So we all have to learn math, up past algebra, in order to graduate from high school.

But the approach to numbers can be different. No one ever taught me this in school.

In America we use the accounting method, where 4 + 5 = 9. It always does, and we drill this until we get it. According to the Harvard professor on NPR, this approach was developed in Italy in the 1500s to teach the children of shopkeepers and merchants.

But there’s a more philosophical approach. What is 9, really? Well,  it could be 4 + 5. Or it could be 11-2. It could be an infinite combination of other things. Nineness is a quality, more than anything. Something to explore.

There’s also applied math. When measuring a table, 4 feet plus 5 inches certainty doesn’t equal 9. It’s got meaning, now. Nine is also a three-possession game in basketball: defend the three-point line and don’t foul. If you’re up by three with ten seconds left in the game, you might think about fouling, depending on your likelihood of securing a defensive rebound on a free throw vs. their likelihood of making a three-pointer.

We have this religious belief surrounding math, that, like many other aspects of school, are revealed as superstition (or worse) if you separate your thinking from the dogma (or kool-aid.)

Should we teach numbers and math to children? Yes. Should we provide and encourage advanced mathematics for those students so inclined? Yes.

Should we force feed a monolithic approach to math on everyone from kindergarten through high school? I think we would be just fine changing gears.


“In Denmark, they learn empathy the way they learn math.”

An article in the Philadelphia Citizen describes the educational system of the “happiest place on Earth.” They implement a rigorous social skills curriculum starting in kindergarten.

When do we, in America, learn about human emotions– how to recognize them in ourselves and others?  Or how best to respond to emotions? When do we learn how to communicate effectively with another person?

To graduate, we force our young people to derive square roots and solve algebraic expressions. The psychological skills–we assume–just happen. Or can’t be taught. Denmark knows better.

It turns out that social and emotional skills are not tangential to success, even academic success. Researchers are discovering that skills like communication and perseverance and “growth mindset” are as important as GPA and test scores in predicting academic performance in college.

A more human-centered curriculum would not only improve our relationships and communities, but would boost academic performance.

Sounds like a no-brainer to me.


Author: Billy

High school teacher and blogger.

2 thoughts on “To Educate with Purpose”

  1. I have seen most of my American students relate to feelings very well, and understand pretty well how to act with empathy or not… They choose to or not, and they are fast to point to otheres when they’re not.


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