Last week, I met a high school design teacher, who was describing the ups and downs of teaching print and design principles to teenagers.

I was appalled to hear of the ignorance of simple, basic math concepts that I’d mastered by the third grade (maybe because I went to Catholic school in the 50s). He laughed about asking students to cut a 20″ x 15″ board in half—one student whined, “Does 15 *have* a half?” He told them to use their rulers and measure the dimensions of the boards so they could figure out where to cut, and then had to explain that they needed to measure from the “1” end of the ruler, not the other end.

To combat this stunning ignorance, he’s instituted what he calls “Math Mondays,” during which he presents exercises intended to hone their primitive math skills so they’ll be able to function at a base level in a design position.

I’ve encountered similar math shortfalls in adults. I was contacted by a student from one of my public design classes, who (at least) remembered that she should add one-eighth of an inch bleed. “But,” she lamented, “there’s no place to put in *fractions*. It wants decimal numbers, and I have no idea how to do that.” I walked her through pulling out her calculator, entering “1,” then pressing “divided by,” typing “8,” then pressing Enter. I’d hoped for the sound of discovery, but heard only, “Huh, oh, OK.” If she ever has to specify 3/8, she’ll call me again, I’m sure.

Boomp.

That’s the sound of my forehead hitting the desk.

I explain the concept of short-fold panels in some classes, and impart my opinion on the amount of the shortening. I think one-eighth of an inch is too much, and one-sixteenth is too tight. “So,” I ask, “what is the ‘Goldilocks compromise value’ between 1/8 and 1/16?” Only once in the last 5 years has someone answered “3/32”—a guy who had done some carpentry work and had actually seen a ruler up close. In all other classes, I’ve been met with a sea of blank stares. I draw a stylized pie on the whiteboard, and divide it with the marker. Still nothing. There’s nothing in their heads for math concepts to ignite.

What the hell have they been teaching kids for the last 30 years?! Are they getting participation trophies for that, too? You’d think all that Sesame Street cuteness would have imparted some basic math, wouldn’t you?

Argh. You kids get off my lawn.

Sooooo, speaking as a ’90s kid here, I’ll be 100% honest. I hated math growing up. I would always get into arguments with my teachers about “why am I going to need this in the future?” Looking back on it, I kinda wish that I could smack myself, because working with spines, creeps, and headtrims I’m now working with math every day, and while I’m okay-ish at it now, I entered the field without having the slightest clue how to center more than two objects on a press sheet!

That said, I don’t see any really easy solution for the problem. The problem of course is value. With calculators and the internet, and automation, it’s reeeaaaally difficult I think for teachers today to explain the value of math. I think many of us learn about it much later than grade school when we encounter actual applications. That said, it’s sad to not know

What’s the difference between how they taught mathematical value in ’50s Catholic schools and modern K-12? Threat of hellfire? A paddle? Something else?

Forgot to finish my thought! It’s sad to not know that there’s someone who doesn’t know the elementary method for converting fractions to decimals. Even my rebellious highschool self knew how to do that!

Ha! I visited the deli department at my local grocery store this week, and asked for about 2/3 lb of sliced turkey. The girl went into full deer-in-headlights mode, and frantically asked a coworker how to enter that. Coworker scowled, said “.66” and turned away. It’s the second time I’ve been through this with the girl. Guess I’ll just get a pound next time, lest I traumatize her again. Sheesh.

I just get the sense that we were subjected to much more rote learning (addition/subtraction tables, multiplication tables) than kids are nowadays. Having those references “pre-installed” in your brain makes it so much easier to see number relationships and do quick math.

Oh my… that’s pretty appalling. However, I will say that this is another argument for how silly our “imperial” system of measurements is. 3mm is a lot easier than .125″ (which is what you get when you divide 1 by 8 on your calculator, for anyone who doesn’t know). And it’s not quite so hard to figure the average of 1.5mm and 3mm.

Of course, what do I know? I prefer points and picas.

I’m with you on the metric system! I confess that I wasn’t raised on picas, but I see the benefit there, too. I guess that if the U.S. ever switches from inches, we’ll go to something stupid, like cubits 😉