Sanjoy Mahajan is convinced that memorizing multiplication tables is a waste of time.

A professor at MIT teaching classes in math, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering, Mahajan said most math education misses the point. Instead of drilling students on math facts, he said, educators need to teach students how numbers work.

“If people have a feeling for numbers, of the relative scale, they would have a much better chance of participating in the public process,” he said. “People come out of college not able to reason. People are accepting all kinds of insanity and illogic.”

Mahajan is one of three participants scheduled to speak on today’s “Teaching What to Think or How to Think” panel at the Conference on World Affairs.

Roberta Baskin, an investigative reporter on the panel, plans to talk about news literacy, or how to be a critical news consumer.

“Now more than ever, critical thinking is needed to sort out the bombardment of information coming at us: much of it biased, opinionated, and partisan,” she said.

As a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, she took a collaborative philosophy class called “Thinking About Thinking.” Every week, she said, the class debated one topic from moral, legal and scientific perspectives.

“Sometimes it made my brain ache,” she said. “Other times it tickled my mind. Always it got me thinking about thinking.”

A journalist who’s worked as a senior Washington correspondent for NOW with Bill Moyers and a senior investigative producer for ABC’s 20/20, she said the questions she asks frame the story.

“Stories aren’t black and white,” she said. “There are many shades of gray. They’re aren’t two sides to every story. There are many sides and perspectives.”

The third panelist, astronomer Alex Filippenko, said learning how to think will help students become the ones who solve the big problems and explore new scientific developments.

“By developing their creativity and critical-thinking skills, and by keeping an open mind, today’s students will become tomorrow’s leaders,” he said.

MIT’s Mahajan, whose classes include “Art of Approximation” and “Street-fighting Mathematics,” added that “the particular content that you learn isn’t so important.”

“What’s more important is the spirit of curiosity,” he said. “How to think is what you’re much more likely to remember and use later in life.”

Contact Camera Staff Writer Amy Bounds at 303-473-1341 or

Conference on World Affairs (CWA)

Conference on World Affairs

The 61st annual Conference on World Affairs runs Monday through Friday on the University of Colorado campus.

For more news on the CWA, see’s Special Section and Archive.

For a full schedule of events and participant bios, visit