Mathematical Curiosity and the Future Workforce

Yesterday, I attended a math workshop for parents of elementary schoolers (grades K-5). The workshop was designed to provide more support for students at home and to give parents a better understanding of the math curriculum. I love the idea of learning new ways to better help my kids. But, to be honest, the thought of spending a few hours reviewing multiplication and division was the last thing I wanted to do in the middle of a busy workday.

I went anyway and what I learned was much more valuable than a refresher on algebra.

The presenter kicked off the workshop with this quote: “Good mathematics is not about how many answers you know… it’s about how you behave when you don’t know.” Math teaching has completely changed since I was a kid and is now focused on helping students understand concepts and reasoning. Kids are encouraged to experiment and make mistakes. Teachers want math to be collaborative and fun not scary and condescending. I started to wonder if elementary school is where the true reskilling of the workforce is happening.

As organizations prepare for an AI-future of work or an analytics-driven future of work, empowering employees to adopt new technologies and embrace “math” is a priority. According to reports, North American organizations spent over $160 billion on corporate training last year. Yet, much of this training for reskilling the workforce is conducted in an “old math” kind of way. It feels intimidating and discouraging. And, it doesn’t promote curiosity or opportunity.

Maybe we need a lesson in “new math”. Maybe we need to think more like elementary students and not be afraid to make mistakes. If we do one thing to reskill our workforce, maybe it should be to create a curiosity around math and data.

Below are some of the takeaways that I learned (based on research from Dr. Jo Boaler, a mathematics professor at Stanford University).

1.       Everyone can learn math to the highest levels.

2.       Mistakes are valuable.

3.       Questions are really important.

4.       Math is about creativity and making sense.

5.       Math is about connections and communicating.

6.       Math class is about learning not performing.

7.       Depth is more important than speed.