Jo Boaler is in the news again, this time teamed up with famed economist, Steven global-warming-is-easy Levitt. Boaler and Levitt are on a campaign to revolutionise mathematics education, and their argument is simple: no one ever divides a polynomial in real life, and therefore “data science”.

But of course. What fools we’ve been.

Starting with Kepler, logarithms, which are a an algebra 2 topic, have been used to interpret data. Other algebra 2 topics such as linear and quadratic functions and the binomial theorem are also used, and are fundamental to statistics and data analysis.

Why doesn’t Boaler et al start with something a bit more challenging? Asking “where will we ever use this?” to a mathematics teacher is an easy sport – anyone can play it (or repeat the same question whenever they decide they’re not in the mood to do some real thinking)

Why teach history? It’s happened already!

Why learn about Shakespeare? No-one talks like that in real life.

Why learn about the planets? We’re never going to live there.

I could go on, but looking at a topic in isolation is, by definition, missing the bigger picture.

The excellent Prof Boaler, for all her posturing, activism and self-aggrandisement, seems almost as ignorant of mathematics as she is about data science. She might do herself a favour and check out principal component analysis, linear discriminant analysis and dimensionality reduction, not to mention Fourier analysis and more general spectral theory, all of which are vital to data science. Even more, component analysis is sometimes performed over finite fields, which are built using polynomials modulo a given irreducible polynomial over a base prime, in which polynomial division and remainder computation is fundamental.

Also, I hate the notion that mathematics must be “useful” to be taught. As Underwood Dudley pointed out long ago, there are no applications of first year calculus, which is why all the “applications” in textbooks are so contrived and don’t change from one book to the next.

“A whopping 66% work with basic analytical software like Microsoft Excel on a daily basis”.

To which I reply: 100% of VCE maths students work with basic analytical software like TI-nSpire or whatever on a daily basis. Boaler should come to Victoria to see how we’re preparing the most data literate population on the planet.

I have often pointed out that the Romans were only interested in that part of mathematics that had immediate applications (basic arithmetic and field measurement). And boy, did they revolutionize mathematics.

Thanks, all. It’s obviously shooting fish in a barrel. But if Boaler keeps barrelling herself, we may as well shoot.