Three Kinds of Math?

Money, Philosophical and Artisanal Math

There was a wonderful piece on National Public Radio this week that told the story of Harvard researcher Houman Harouni (, who had done historical research on why we learn mathematics the way we do.

(His full dissertation is here:

In the dissertation, he gives a very specific example of how this kind of approach to mathematics can be viewed through three different approaches.

Money Math
He makes the case that all of western mathematics has ended up looking like problems of this type:

Susan has 12 oranges. Her mother gives her 15 more. How many oranges
does she have now?

or: 12+15 = ?

This kind of mathematics came out of the economics of the time – money counters and accountants, business people needed to know this kind of math in order to balance the books. He makes the compelling case that the economies drove the need for this kind of math to be necessary, and it became the predominant way of thinking of mathematics since the Renaissance.

Philosophical Math
He offers two other types of mathematical approaches. What if the problem was worded this way:

27 = ?

This approach is a more philosophical approach about the nature of the number, and the ways that it might come to be and what it represents.what could go into the right side of that equation? 9×3? Three cubed? Log base three of 27? It invites a very different kind of mathematical thinking and exploration.

Artisanal Math
Another approach would embed the math in the professional work during apprenticeships with craftsmen. This was very reminiscent of the work of Jean Lave ( and her excellent work on situated learning. In studying the traditions of apprenticeship for Tailor’s in countries like Tunisia, it was clear that mathematical learning was built into the apprenticeship, but it is not anything like what we would call traditional teaching and learning of mathematics. Moreover, these tailors had a high functional ability to work with mathematics that were specific to their craft.

Tying it all together
Over the past six years in working in our MPX program I have been delighted and challenged to try and build all three kinds of mathematical approaches into the work we do with our projects. We have developed mathematical models in our scientific community to understand and categorize physical phenomena, we’ve looked at form and function in ways that they express themselves in artistic work in design and engineering, and we’ve practiced traditional math as a means to understand some of the ways that procedural knowledge in mathematics can help us unpack what we see behind certain expressions. I think the real challenge of the evolution of mathematics education needs to be in rethinking how do we approach these sometimes complementary but more often than not this connected or even underutilized approaches to building mathematical understanding in all of our students. In some ways, they fit the three legs of mathematical understanding that are part of common core: no (money math), do (artisan old math), understand (philosophical math).

Here is the NPR story that explains some of the research: