Ed Dillon, who teaches math at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, hopes to be "doing this well into my elderly years. I don't feel like it's work. I'm just paid to have fun. I hope everyone in college can do the same thing -- find something they're passionate about."
It took Dillon a while to find his passion. After high school, he got a full-time job at Arby's. There, he learned two important things: "A: I had skills that weren't being used. And B: there are more gainful ways to make a life."
A roommate finally told him, "Hey, you're a bright guy -- why don't you go to college?" Ultimately, Dillon earned both bachelors and masters degrees in math. "I studied topology. It's non-utilitarian, but it's beautiful. I was good at it. I got out of college and couldn't find a job."
Dillon did some computer programming and worked as an actuary for a couple of years. "I think that's a good experience. At the time it didn't seem like it was going to be that helpful. But I tell stories about how to use math in those jobs. It's way more authentic. I've become a storyteller."
What's the secret to being a good math teacher?
Most students can pinpoint one time when someone said something degrading, or a female was told, "You don't have to be good at math," or they had a mean teacher. Students are smart -- they know when you don't really care if you learn. Then expectations aren't high, and they don't learn. You can't do this abstractly on the simple promise that "eventually you're going to use this."
Does that mean anyone can learn math?
I don't know. What's the baseline we need? What's the most important software in the business world? Excel -- 90 percent of people in business use Excel. It's all algebra. We make a mistake by not including Excel when we teach algebra. You can actually do an example and show, "This is the distributor property," or "you're solving for a variable."
So better teaching is the key?
Another part is work ethic. There are some serious problems with the general college population. It's not laziness, just a misunderstanding of what's required. The average college student is putting in less than five hours a week studying! That's absurd. The rule is two to three hours per credit hour. There is no quick way to learn pre-calculus. You do problems, that's how you do it. Log in to Kahn Academy (www.kahnacademy.org). It's an amazing library of science and math videos. Don't know how to convert percents? Go to Kahn Academy and try a couple of problems. If you have to struggle, that's okay. There are strategies for dealing with that. This is all related to what employers want from their employees -- do you know how to learn?
What are the most basic math skills that people should know?
Everyone should have statistics. Why? Statistical reasoning is everywhere in life. Should you wear your seat belt? What's the trend in mortgage interest rates? There are thousands of decisions you make with statistical reasoning. I do an exercise in class; I ask students, "Please write down the current world population and the current national debt." Nobody knows those numbers -- not even a ballpark estimate. How is it possible that 30 people, ages 18 to 40, don't know the national debt? It's a number that's going to affect the rest of our lives.