Some of you are already insisting in your head that 6 ÷ 2(1+2) has only one right answer, but hear me out. The problem isn’t the mathematical operations. It’s knowing what operations the author of the problem wants you to do, and in what order. Simple, right? We use an “order of operations” rule we memorized in childhood: “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally,” or PEMDAS, which stands for Parentheses Exponents Multiplication Division Addition Subtraction.* This handy acronym should settle any debate—except it doesn’t, because it’s not a rule at all. It’s a convention, a customary way of doing things we’ve developed only recently, and like other customs, it has evolved over time. (And even math teachers argue over order of operations.)
“In earlier times, the conventions didn’t seem as rigid and people were supposed to just figure it out if they were mathematically competent,” says Judy Grabiner, a historian of mathematics at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. Mathematicians generally began their written work with a list of the conventions they were using, but the rise of mass math education and the textbook industry, as well as the subsequent development of computer programming languages, required something more codified. That codification occurred somewhere around the turn of the last century. The first reference to PEMDAS is hard to pin down. Even a short list of what different early algebra texts taught reveals how inconsistently the order of operations was applied…
The bottom line is that “order of operations” conventions are not universal truths in the same way that the sum of 2 and 2 is always 4. Conventions evolve throughout history in response to cultural and technological shifts. Meanwhile, those ranting online about gaps in U.S. math education and about the “right” answer to these intentionally ambiguous math problems might be, ironically, missing a bigger point.
“To my mind,” says Grabiner, “the major deficit in U.S. math education is that people think math is about calculation and formulas and getting the one right answer, rather than being about exciting ideas that cut across all sorts of intellectual categories, clear and logical thinking, the power of abstraction and a language that lets you solve problems you’ve never seen before.” Even if that language, like any other, can be a bit ambiguous sometimes.
Another way to restate this conclusion from Grabiner is that math is more about problem-solving than calculations.
This reminds me of well-known areas of sociology that deal with the norms of everyday interactions. In order to interpret the actions of others, we need to know about agreed-upon assumptions. When those assumptions are blurry or are not followed, people get nervous. Hence, as this article suggests, many people get anxious when the rules/norms of math are seemingly violated. If these sorts of basic equations can’t be easily figured out, what hope is there to understand the rest of math? But, norms are not always cut and dry and that can be okay…as long as the people participating are aware of this.