Friday April 18, 2014

Rothenburger: Yes, we're lousy at numbers, thank you

We’re in big trouble. I have proof.

Never mind the Senate, Rob Ford, and our record on the environment. We can’t do math.

According to an international report, Canada’s 15-year-olds have slipped to 13th in the world in mathematics, behind places like Singapore and Estonia.

Any Canadian paying for a burger already knows 15-year-old fast-food assistant managers can’t give you the correct change if the automatic calculator on the cash register goes on the fritz.

But when the armchair mayor is better at math than they are, there’s something very, very wrong. You’re looking at a man who flunked Grade 12 math twice and only made it the third time, by correspondence, because the final exam was written by Dick and Jane.

There’s an online quiz you can take that’s based on the international test. The first question they ask is, “Are you smarter than a 15-year-old?” I decided to find out.

The sample includes six math questions, and they get harder as they go. I played fair, eschewing my calculator in favour of scribbling on a notepad. I still remember my times tables, after all.

I was batting a thousand and feeling cocky — then they went metric on me.

Question 4 wanted to know how many people climb Mount Fuji every day. No problem.

Next, Toshi is walking up the Gotemba trail, which is nine clicks each way, at 1.5 km/h and walking down at 3 km/h. He must get back by 8 p.m. What time does he have to leave in the morning?

Admittedly, it took me a couple of minutes, half of which was spent in panic before I knuckled down and eventually nailed it, with no calculator, apps or smartphones.

Kilometres I can do, but what the hell are centimetres? Any pre-metric dinosaur can appreciate my plummeting heart when this appeared on my screen:

“Toshi wore a pedometer to count his steps. His pedometer showed that he walked 22,500 steps on the way up. Estimate Toshi’s average step length for his walk up the trail.”

The options were 40 cm., 0.4 cm., 4,000 cm., or 20.2 cm. If this was Cash Cab, I’d have called a friend or asked somebody on the sidewalk, but I was on my own. Four thousand seemed like a lot of centimetres, and 0.4 awfully small.

I’m a sucker for fractions, so I went with 20.2 and could almost hear the little bell that rings when you spell a word wrong and must leave the stage.

I was only slightly cheered to find I scored at least as well as 56 per cent of the 15-year-olds who took the test.

Somehow, my results must have gotten out, because suddenly educators are calling for an investigation into why Canadian kids are so bad at math. Thirteenth place is one thing (our Olympians are used to it) but when the metric-illiterate armchair mayor measures up to more than half our ninth graders, something must be done.

They shouldn’t worry so much. I get by. I can’t do algebra, but I can tip waitresses by pressing the 15-per cent button on the cordless gizmo they hand me. Bar codes take away the nuisance of paying attention at checkouts, and nobody ever asks me how big a hectare is.

Math may not be our thing, but we have machines for that, and Canadians are still good at polite.

Thank you. You’re welcome.

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