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Minus Signs--and Professionalism

My Uncle Bill was a professional car salesman, specializing in large orders for governments and big companies, selling 5 to 100 vehicles at a time. He won several awards for being the best fleet sales person in Edmonton. Uncle Bill had a lot of good attributes for sales, so it wasn’t hard to see why he was successful. But I asked him one day for his reasons for his success, and the answer surprised me: “Serial numbers!” he said.

Uncle Bill explained to me that his customers wanted accurate records of the assets they purchased. If a vehicle serial number was not recorded properly, the company could seem to own an asset it had no record of. And this would force the accountants into an expensive search to find the source of this error and fix it, often taking hours and even days.

So Uncle Bill devised a system where he would keep track of serial numbers as the vehicles moved from the factory to the car dealership to the customer’s parking lot. He would visually inspect each vehicle’s serial number — digit- by-digit — at least five times and at least five times again in the paperwork. This had to have been very tedious work, especially for the really big orders. But, in this way, each vehicle’s serial number always matched each vehicle’s paperwork when it was delivered. The customers knew that Uncle Bill’s vigilance would save them money years down the road, and hence they gave him more big orders than they gave to his competitors.

These days, I’m teaching high school math, and I’m seeing a big correlation between students who have a professional attitude and their math mark. At the lower math levels, students are taught the rules on how to handle minus signs, which really are not that difficult to remember and apply. These rules must be mastered to do well at the higher levels , where I notice something interesting happening. I see some students, who may or may not be understanding the higher level math, still floundering with the minus signs. As I interrogate them to discover the reason for their misunderstanding, most seem to know the rules quite well. It seems keeping track of the minus signs (plus a few other lower level math skills) is a tedious and irrelevant task, thus not important enough to pay sufficient attention to. Hence their math mark suffers, and their academic career stalls.

This is a good thing! I really don’t want these people analyzing my blood — or flying my airplanes — or operating my municipal water treatment plant. If they can’t be bothered with details of minus signs in math, they won’t be bothered with the life-changing details of these professional occupations. I also have my doubts whether these people could manage restaurant workers for food safety, safely secure a load on a truck for highway travel, or properly record serial numbers to keep assets organized.

Uncle Bill was not university educated, and I don’t know his high school math mark. But judging from how he took the tedious details of his job as being very important — because someone else depended on him to do these things right — he probably did reasonably well in high school math.

Handling minus signs in math both enhances and proves one’s attitude to pay attention to details. How a student chooses to approach this tedious math task opens and closes many doors for the student’s future.

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Unit Based Curriculum

Chemistry: Most Practical High School Subject