What's Missing from Math

By Dr. Bryan Smith


Math class is more interesting than it used to be. Traditionally, the focus has been on drill and review, with an occasional story problem thrown in. Now, however, real-world problems dominate the instruction. Drill and review still get their due, but it is striking how many story problems there are and how well-crafted they are. To use the language of education, these problems are authentic—problems derived from real-life situations that a typical student can relate to.


You may think the reason for this shift is a desire to make math interesting. That’s part of it, but it’s more than that. As one textbook states in its introduction to students, “It is our goal that you see mathematics as relevant because it provides a common and useful language for discussing and solving real-world problems.”1 Real-world story problems are everywhere because textbook developers want students to understand that this is what math is about: math is a powerful tool for describing reality and addressing its many problems.


What do you see when you examine the hundreds of story problems in a particular textbook? You come to discern that textbook’s worldview. Like the colored threads in a tapestry, these problems combine to form a way of seeing the world—a way of seeing reality as the textbook authors perceive it. And if you are looking at a textbook from a secular publisher, you’re going to find that something significant is missing.


Third-Grade Math Recently, I reviewed Houghton Mifflin’s third-grade math course, Go Math!2 I was impressed with how well-stated the explanations were and how well-aligned the course was with national standards. I was also impressed with how the author’s beliefs about diversity came through in the story problems. Names such as Stephanie, Matt, and Ryan were common but so were names like Omar, Jorge, and Roshan. Also, students were often required to solve problems that come from the real-life situations of a particular ethnicity. For example, one of the first problems in the book is a STEM activity that asks students to figure out how many Abuelita dolls a store owner can stock on his shelves.


When I looked at the course as a whole, however, I found that its vision of third-grade life was hollow. Normal third-graders go to school, have fun with friends, and take care of their pets, but they never go to church. They solve problems with school teachers, but they have no interaction with Sunday school teachers or ministers. They save money to buy toys and yummy treats, but they never save money in order to give to a religious cause. They assist in school food drives, but they never attempt to help others through the ministry of a church. Sunday comes up repeatedly in the story problems, but it is never a day for worship or any kind of religious observance. It is a day for going to school plays, having fun at a fair, and enjoying concerts.


Normal third-graders, it seems, are soulless creatures who solve problems with math but live without any knowledge of the blessings and responsibilities of being an image-bearer of God.3 Algebra 2 It doesn’t get any better in high-school math. After reviewing Houghton Mifflin, I turned my attention to Carnegie Learning Algebra II. The real-world problems are more interesting (mainly because the math is more advanced). But God remains absent. That’s a shame because as the problems become more complex, the need for God and the worldview of Scripture become greater.


This became obvious to me as I focused on the problems that open each lesson. These openers present a complex, multifaceted problem. Usually, the ensuing lesson will come back to the problem repeatedly, showing the students how the math they’re learning can be useful for analyzing the problem and proposing solutions. But complex, real-world problems often have just as much to do with the deep-down issues of our humanness as they do with quantifying and modeling with math.


Consider the first opener in the book. Lesson 1.1 begins with a discussion of patterns—particularly, the pattern we see in the family tree of a male drone bee: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc. “What makes this particular pattern fascinating,” the authors explain, “is that it seems to appear everywhere! This pattern is called the Fibonacci Sequence, and you can find it in flowers, seashells, pineapples, art, architecture, and even in your DNA!”4 Fascinating indeed! Why do we live in a world of such surprising order? The authors never raise that question.


Only a few openers relate to the marvels of creation. Usually, they focus on problems that raise important moral questions. And, once again, God never comes up. Students are left with the impression that the really hard questions in life are the math ones. The moral questions are more or less obvious. But are they?


Consider the opener for Lesson 5.1. Here the focus is on income inequality in the United States. These are the final two paragraphs:


“Since the 1970s, the United States has become a nation with much more income inequality. Wages in the middle and lower classes have remained fairly stagnant while the wealth of the top 1% has increased from 9% in the 1970s to nearly 25% today.”


“Why do you think the income inequality changed after the 1970s? Do you think this trend will continue for the foreseeable future? What factors play a part in determining wealthy and non-wealthy classes?”5


How would you respond? How do you think a teenager should respond? I believe a student cannot respond correctly unless he bases his thinking on biblical teaching—what God says about wealth, justice, and generosity. The student, however, will not be able to respond in that way unless he is taught to do so. Students taking this course will be led to think about problems as though God did not exist, and thus they will be misled. Conclusion When young people are taught math in a godless way, what kind of world do we create? We make a world where math replaces sound judgment, especially moral judgment. We make a world in which big data combines with complex algorithms to become a force that invisibly disrupts and degrades people’s lives. We make a world where people highly value statistical analyses (even if they can’t understand them) but dismiss any argument that smacks of religion. In short, we create the world we are living in.6 This may be the world we are living in, but this is not the world I want living in my children. I want them to see God at the center of everything, and I hope that as they do this, they will make a difference in this world. But if I am going to accomplish this—if we are going to accomplish this—a better way must be sought, even in math class. What will that better way look like? It will start with being unafraid to mention God and to make Him central to the instruction. It will demonstrate that much of what we study in math doesn’t make sense until we look at the world from the perspective of who God is and what He has done. It will present the elegance of our universe as the result of God’s work of creation. It will show students how befuddled secular mathematicians are when confronted with the orderliness of our world. But, of course, it will do more. It will show students that math is a powerful tool for modeling our world, but it is only a tool. It can predict the path of a ballistic missile, but it cannot tell us if we should use that knowledge. It can tell us what Americans think about love and marriage, but it cannot tell us if they are right. It can tell us the leading risk factors for a certain disease, but it cannot show us the way to eternal life. For math instruction to lead to wisdom, it must be integrated with the teachings of Scripture. This is what Christian education can do. This is what Christian education must do.



Dr. Bryan Smith has worked in Christian education for over twenty years. He has been a classroom teacher as well as a textbook author. Currently, he serves at BJU Press as the Bible Integration Senior Manager. In this position, he assists authors and teachers in the work of integrating faith and learning in the classroom. Bryan holds a Ph.D. in Old Testament Interpretation. He and his wife, Becky, have six children.



ENDNOTES 1. David Dengler et al., Carnegie Learning Algebra II, 3rd ed., Vol. 1 (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Learning, 2014), FM-31. 2. Juli K. Dixon et al., Go Math! (Orlando: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015). 3. Some people may push back against this evaluation, claiming the story problems students read in math class have little to no effect on their worldview. I disagree, and I think Betsy Levy Paluck would as well. She’s a psychologist at Princeton University. Paluck has done research on how stories change the way people perceive reality. In 2004, she studied the effects of a radio soap opera in Rwanda. The show focused on different ethnicities being tolerant of one another. Paluck found that the soap opera did not change people’s beliefs, but it did change how people perceived norms for society. In particular, they came to accept that peaceful coexistence with other ethnicities was normal. This particular instance of storytelling led to a good outcome—people being more civil to one another. My concern is that a secular approach to math instruction will—over many years—lead students to conclude that problem-solving without God is normal. See E. L. Paluck, “Reducing Intergroup Prejudice and Conflict Using the Media: A Field Experiment in Rwanda,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 3 (2009): 574–87. 4. David Dengler et al., Carnegie Learning Algebra II, 3rd ed., Vol. 1 (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Learning, 2014), 3. 5. David Dengler et al., Carnegie Learning Algebra II, 3rd ed., Vol. 1 (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Learning, 2014), 405. 6. For a good overview of how an unduly high view of math can produce these negative effects, see Jerry Z. Miller, The Tyranny of Metrics (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018) and Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (New York: Crown, 2016). Here’s a snippet from O’Neil’s introduction: “Data scientists all too often lose sight of the folks on the receiving end of the transaction. They certainly understand that a data-crunching program is bound to misinterpret people a certain percentage of the time, putting them in the wrong groups and denying them a job or a chance at their dream house. But as a rule, the people running the [algorithms] don’t dwell on those errors. Their feedback is money, which is also their incentive” (pp. 12–13). Again, we see a reminder that math is about more than numbers. It is also about our humanness and what it means to live well in God’s world. Without that emphasis in textbooks, our math education will likely produce clever devils, not wise image-bearers of God.