The High Value Of Low Tech

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By Mike O’Hern, Center Director of Mathnasium of West Knoxville


Untitled-2I may have written here before that I’m old. I’ve got three kids scattered just about as far across the country as they could get, I’m a grandfather, and I remember when we used sliderules instead of calculators (okay, maybe not that old, because I barely remember using sliderules). The point is that I grew up without all of the high-tech gadgets, and even my kids did, too, for the most part. Now, that I own a math learning center, I think I can see that the absence of those gadgets was a good thing.

Quite excited to be moving our center into a bigger space, I was telling my son’s mother-in-law that we will have a wall representing “math at work.” I have a framed photo of the space shuttle and a display of an American flag that was flown over the USS Asheville nuclear submarine. She surprised me when she suggested that I put something up about sewing. She said that she learned quite a bit of math learning to sew. That got me thinking about all the things we used to do growing up that helped us have an understanding of numbers and how they work – some subtle, some quite directly – that most kids aren’t doing these days.

We used to play cards. Four-handed games pound into your head that thirteen is one-fourth of 52. Three-handed games means each player gets 17 cards, one-third of 51, and you need to remove one card to play. We learned probability – eight spades have been played, so what’s the likelihood that they’ll go around again? On a no-pass hand, what are the chances that someone is void in diamonds?

Recapture human interaction and the education that comes with the low-tech side of life.



While learning to sew and cook, we also learned about linear and square measurements, measuring volumes and weights, doubling, cutting in half, and all kinds of proportions and fractions. Sometimes it was marbles or pool, were geometry was king. What was the proper angle of attack to cause your sphere to knock another sphere into a third sphere. Hint: the angle of incidents is equal to the angle of reflection (assuming no English, of course). Other times we might even build stuff. We would measure, cut, estimate, or calculate what it would take to hold a given amount of weight. We’d determine the difference it might make on your homemade go-cart if you use smaller or larger diameter wheels.

My suggestion is to keep the gadgets out of your child’s hands as much as humanly possible. Recapture human interaction and the education that comes with the low-tech side of life. Don’t get caught in that “they need to learn how to use computers” trap. I truly believe that children taught “the three R’s” and critical thinking skills will go far intellectually in life!


MathnasiumMike O’Hern, Center Director of Mathnasium of West Knoxville, earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Metallurgical Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1988. He pursued graduate studies in Materials Science & Engineering while on the Research Staff at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Mike has had a life-long love of mathematics and teaching, and feels that math is not about learning to be ready for the next math class – it’s about learning to think.

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