Math (and other) skills evaporate

I was in a fast food place where the pricing function on the registers had gone down and they were doing it by hand. I ordered a meal from the perfectly normal seeming 18 year old behind the counter. He checked the price on the board (no reason he would have it memorized) and wrote it down. It was $4.99. I gave him a $5 bill.
He, i am not kidding, got out a calculator to figure out my change. But after a second he realized it was easy and proudly handed me $1 back, then bustled off to get my order. It wasn’t busy, i was not in any way demanding or in a hurry, he just had no clue. When he got back, i handed back the bill and just said he gave me too much change. Then went on my way.
An obvious case of overdependence on technology. I have heard many people say “i have an app on my phone (or carry a calculator) so why do i need to know how to figure a tip” or “i don’t need to remember details about X event, i can just look it up on wikipedia”. Personally i like being able to do things myself.

Pepper Mill substitute-teaches at our daughter’s school, and yesterday was railing about 7th grade students who needed calculators to do basic math (to me, at home). Pepper Mill’s math skills aren’t the greatest, as she herself admits, but she’s appalled at how incapable the current crop of kids is about things that even she does as a matter of course.

I am very good with math yet always get flustered when anyone asks me to do even simple math in my head. I don’t know why, but this vision of an upturned dusty box spilling a tangled mess of numbers into a heap appears in my mind if asked to do math in front of someone.

As for reliance on technology - I think I remember the phone numbers of maybe 3 friends. If I lost my cell phone and didn’t have my contacts backed up, then I’d be screwed. Strange that just 10 years ago I was able to remember the phone number of every friend (or wrote them down on a sheet in my wallet).

Do schools today make the kids memorize multiplication tables? When I was in grade school we were expected to know all of them to 12x12 by the forth grade. It has served me well my entire life.

The way you conceptualize your change drawer is really different if you have the total in front of you (counting up to an amount) than if you are making change on your own (counting down from an amount.) When you know the total, you work your way down the line from big bills to small and you get to the point where you have an automatic and instinctual understanding of how to make certain amounts. It’s like typing- your hands just do it before your brain even registers it. After a week or so it becomes completely automatic and you go on autopilot.

But when you are making change on your own you work from small to big and it’s more of a subtractive process. It’s a totally different way of thinking of things, and it can be tough to switch back and forth.

Once again, it’s like typing. Most people who use Dvorak keyboards know how to use a QWERTY keyboard and could get back in the groove quickly if they needed to. But if they have to switch over for just a bit they are probably going to be slow and clumsy on QWERTY because the Dvorak muscle-memory is going to be so strong.

My math skills have definitely evaporated. I was a math wizard in school. I could add, multiply, subtract and divide numbers in one go all in my head. Now 13 years later it is faster for me to write it out than to try to figure it out in my head.

My math skills are coming back now that I have a daughter in 1st grade. She’ll be doing a math problem and ask, “Does 328 + 64 = 392?” and I have to quickly do it in my head. Great workout for those math muscles.

purple cow: For me, it’s not even as much about wanting to do things myself as it is being sure I get it right. If your young cashier friend had basic math skills he would have realized that what he did didn’t make sense. But he’s used to just reading it from the register and handing it out. Heaven forbid if he ever hits a wrong button on the calculator. He won’t have any idea. (I’d be more willing to think he just had a brain glitch if I hadn’t seen things like that happen so many times.)

even sven: The way you’re describing making change makes me wonder if we do it differently, or if you’re just seeing it differently. For me, counting up from the total to the amount tendered is more like adding. Makes me curious.

thirdwarning, I agree with you. When I worked in fast food, I frequently worked register at the drive-thru window. When you have to take multiple orders, you have to cash out the register between customers, so you will have to make change manually when a customer reaches the window. For me, making change was indeed an additive process. You counted up from the amount of the order starting with the pennies, then the nickels, etc, until you reached the next dollar, then up to the next five, etc. until you reached the amount given you by the customer. So, even sven’s reasoning escapes me, too.

I’ve been living in northern India for the last 6 months, and virtually every merchant uses a calculator for even simple transactions. I’ve seen a lot of people pause a long moment to add up 20 + 25 (bottle of soda and a candy bar), and occasionally some guys still get confused using a calculator to add up 5-10 items together.

Hey, I have a math degree from an ivy league school - and at the tender age of 62 cannot add numbers together in my head reliably anymore. For that matter, these days I’m likely to forget why I’m adding them up in the middle of the process. :slight_smile:

At least this youngster seems to have a knack:

My first reaction to the OP is a “kids these days” lament. But on the other hand, I don’t know how to pack a musket, nor do I know how to milk a cow. Should I take the time to learn musketeering? No, it’s an obsolete technology - a sign that society has progressed.

Should I learn how to milk a cow? Tricky. Heinlein would probably say Yes:

But because I did not spend time learning those skills I was able devote more time to acquiring the specialized skills that others rely on me for. Is this societal progress?

(What, this isn’t GD? sorry…)

One day, our math department secretary had to divide by 10 and used a calculator to do so. While not the sharpest knife in the drawer, she was more than old enough (older than me) and would certainly have learned basic arithmetic in school. But the more shocking experience was seeing a graduate student in math take out a calculator to multiply 75 by 8. (I would instantly have the answer as 3/4 or 800.) Occasionally, during dull passages at a concert, I multiply two randomly chosen 3 digit numbers. But not by the traditional method, but using various tricks and shortcuts I know. When I can’t do it, I know I will have crossed some divide.

I used to be “Teacher’s Pet” in all my math classes. I was the kid the teacher would turn to if nobody else knew the answer. And I was never wrong. And it wasn’t unusual for me to (tactfully) correct the teacher. I used to do amazing calculations in my head. And I remember getting bored in my Plane Geometry class, so I “invented” Solid Geometry.

I also got 1600 (perfect score) on my SAT. When I entered the Architecture program at Ohio State, we had to take a very difficult test, involving a lot of math. They announced that I was the first student EVER to ace the test.

Fast forward 40+ years. I have trouble doing simple calculations without a calculator. I don’t even remember how to do long division . . . or short, for that matter. There are even times when I don’t even know what calculations I need to make, without working it out on paper. But lately I’ve begun the practice of working a problem out in my head, then checking it with the calculator. If I take my time and just force myself to think clearly I can still regain some of my skills. But it’s not easy.

I’m just describing it wrong.

If the change due is $.37, I’m going to automatically reach for a quarter, a dime and two pennies- going from smallest to biggest. I won’t even have to think about it.

If the total is $4.37 and you pay with a five, I’m going to grab three pennies to bring it up to $4.40. Then I start adding nickels, dimes and quarters until I count up to five.

The problem comes when I see that .37 and my brain is screaming “that’s a quarter a dime and two pennies!!!” Even if I know that’s not true, it’s still likely to trip me up enough to make me lose track of where I was.

In the early grades, they still use the addition and multiplication tables. However, in my experience, they introduce calculators around grade five and everything from then on is done with a calculator. In other words, for the last eight years of a standard education in this country, kids are never required to perform mental arithmetic. I remember when I was a calculus T.A. at Vanderbilt, I had the jolting experience of tutoring a student who couldn’t multiply 3 by 16 in her head, and yet she was admitted to one of America’s top universities.

In the private high school I teach at now, we don’t allow calculators for most math classes up through eleventh grade, though we’ll sometimes bring them in for specialized assignments. In twelfth grade students take AP math classes where calculators are required. I strongly believe in forcing students to maintain basic mental math skills throughout their education. It’s by learning and practicing math that the human brain develops the ability to do basic logic, organize, and check for sanity.

ITR Champion: The funny thing there is that i was allowed to use a calculator in class too, but I didn’t for the easy stuff. I can multiple 3X16 in my head far faster than typing it into a calculator (ie, it’s pretty much instantaneous). Kids say, hey I can use a calculator so i will always use it. Instead of hey I can use a calculator to help me when I need it.
It’s the choosing to rely on the technology even when you don’t need it that bothers me, because you lose the ability to work without it if you have to. If society collapses, i may need to learn how to butcher a hog, but that’s far less likely than my having to divide a bill into 3 portions at the restuarant when I forgot my calculator (not that I have one but for argument’s sake).

Pour about 70 grains of black powder down the barrel of the musket.
Place a lubricated (with oil) cotton patch over the end of the barrel.
Put the musket ball on top of the patch. Give it a good whack to get it started down the barrel.
Take the ramrod out from under the barrel of the musket.
Shove the ball and patch down until it is seated on top of the powder.
No matter how many times you’ve seen it done in Hollywood movies, do not pound the ball down against the powder over and over and over again.
Withdraw the ramrod and return it to its proper place under the barrel.
Pick up the musket and swing it around.
Pull back the cock (hammer) until it clicks once (aka the half cock position).
If the frizzen isn’t open, open it now.
Pour black powder into the pan until it is about halfway full.
Close the frizzen.
Pull the cock back all the way (aka full cock).
Aim. Don’t spend too much time aiming because this thing is only good to about 75 yards tops and probably doesn’t even have a sight on it anyway.
Pull the trigger.
If it misfired, pull the cock all the way back and try again.
If you got a flash in the pan, put more powder in the pan and try again.
If it still doesn’t fire shove a pick down in the vent hole, re-prime the pan again if necessary, and try again.
If that doesn’t work, just yell “screw it” and charge at the enemy with your bayonet.

I can show you how to milk a cow too.

And I’m good at math.

Then again, the fact that my brain is occupied with stuff like this may explain why I have no meaningful social skills. My brain is too full of useless information for me to learn anything that might actually be useful. :stuck_out_tongue:

(I assume you meant 3/4 of 800)

I think the main reason so many people suck at math is that they aren’t taught things like this. Most people are taught what one of my teachers way back when called “monkey math”, which is just monkey see, monkey do. You see 75 times 8 and you multiply it out longhand without even thinking about it. If you stop and think about what you are doing, you can do the 3/4ths of 800 or you can do 10 times 75 minus 2 times 75, which is also a fairly easy calculation to do in your head.

I’ve managed to teach Geek Child #3 how to think like this, and he does very well in math because he’s not doing monkey see monkey do. If you understand what you are doing and why you can figure out the rules. If you just memorize the rules you’ll never do well at math.

Just my 2 cents.

GPS is doing the same thing to our navigational skills that calculators have done to our arithmetical skills …