I recently had the mortifying experience of looking back at my torts notes from 1L year.  In the section about apportioning damages, I wrote “Calculating Pure v. Modified Comparative Fault,” followed by approximately 20 question marks.  I know I am not the only law student to ever tense up at the sight of numbers, as I remember our torts professor had to explain this essential concept multiple times.  The importance of preventing nightclub fires somehow stuck with us, but advising our clients on the potential costs of litigation?  No thanks.

In recent years, there has been increased national dialogue about math education reform in our elementary and high schools.  According to the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, “‘Mathematics for all’ is a goal that has not yet been realized,” in part because the curriculum is “repetitive and lacks depth.”  In response to such flaws, one math education reform organization has sought to build “a completely new math curriculum with computer-based computation at its heart.”  Computerbasedmath.org eschews the traditional mode of teaching students through rote memorization of the steps to solving abstract problems (ie: factoring polynomials).  Instead, the organization suggests that, by allowing computers to handle the actual computing, students can focus on analyzing and understanding real-world math problems.  This month, Estonia became the first country to implement these ideas in building a new school statistics course.

This is essentially a shift in focus from the theoretical to the practical, which will better prepare students for the job market.  Working in a global economy involves assessment of financial risk and consumer patterns; the vast majority of employees do not need to know the steps for finding the volume of a cone.  Such reforms could also greatly benefit law students, who rarely need to do “hard math” calculations to serve their clients.  Lawyers need knowledge of, say, apportioning damages, rather than the steps of solving a quadratic equation.

I propose that, in the spirit of math education reform, law schools begin to include a mandatory “Practical Math for Lawyers” course in the 1L curriculum.  It will cover concepts such as billing, damages, and sentencing credit for criminal defendants (I bet that anyone who has spent time in a Tennessee jail can explain 2-for-1 credits better than any law student).  I only wish that this training had been available to me during law school…as a pass/fail class, of course.

Joanna Collins

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4 Responses to Don’t Make Me Do Math!

  1. Cal Albritton says:

    [-b +or- (the square root of {b squared - 4ac})]/2a

    I feel accomplished.

  2. Amanda Nguyen says:

    Though I am not particularly uncomfortable with Math, I hadn’t had any requirements since Freshman year of college. Getting back into the hang of things was a little rough, especially given the fact that I was in the same sections as math whizzes like Ms. Patel and Ms. Frankrone.

    I think a course like “Practical Math for Lawyers” makes a lot of sense. But beyond that, college students considering law should be advised to take basic Economics. Though I eventually caught up, both Torts and Corporations were a little more work since I hadn’t had my Math hat on in a while.

    Great piece, Joanna!

  3. Erin Frankrone says:

    Math is one of my favorite subjects, but I understand it doesn’t come naturally for everyone. That said, I feel there is a real danger in shifting away from mathematical theory at the early stages of education on so many levels.

    First, theory is harder is pick up later if you really on calculators and computers when you first lean the material. Tools like computers and calculators are only helpful if the user theoretically understands the inputs and outputs. It’s like telling someone that they only need a tool box to build a house–they also need an understanding of architecture. So it is with math. In order to face real-world problems, you have to understand theory so you can build appropriate models, understand the calculations they yield, and adjust computations to represent what is happening. Calculators and computers are meant to avoid tedious calculations, not to avoid theoretical understanding.

    Second, US students are already losing their competitiveness in math and sciences. Downplaying mathematical theory will continue this trend.

    Third, other disciplies, like law, really need math theory. “Practical” math for lawyers is really a great idea, but the practical math lawyers need is acutally theory-based. Consdier statistical evidence, for example. Statiscally numbers are meaningless if lawyers can’t understand the significane of different features of the calculations when building there case.

  4. Sonal Patel says:

    Wonderful post and title Joanna! (Although, I do love math…)

    Your statement “This is essentially a shift in focus from the theoretical to the practical, which will better prepare students for the job market” made me think of the shift in our economy from a heavy manufacturing industry to more of a service-based industry. Schools used to train people to do the same task over and over again in order to prepare them for factory work. For example, making students do monotonous math problems over and over again taught them discipline and consistency. However, as our economy has drastically changed, we seek more of an entrepreneurial spirit from the upcoming generations. I’m interested to see some case studies of how this new learning style affects people who enter the workforce after school.