Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why math education doesn't educate

I have a friend with three nephews. One was in eighth grade last year and took the private high school entrance exam--the ICEE--last year. His math scores were awful. Despite that glaring warning that the school they go to--the same one our kids go to--doesn't teach math, the family did not immediately hire a math tutor for their seventh grader.

Well, one year later, the now-eighth grader has taken an ICEE practice test and has completely bombed the math. He now has one week to prep for the real ICEE exam.

The real question is why our kids' school, and just about every school out there is so bad at teaching math. As usual, City Journal has the answer:
During the 1970s and 1980s, educators in reading, English, and history argued that the traditional curriculum needed to be more “engaging” and “relevant” to an increasingly alienated and unmotivated—or so it was claimed—student body. Some influential educators sought to dismiss the traditional curriculum altogether, viewing it as a white, Christian, heterosexual-male product that unjustly valorized rational, abstract, and categorical thinking over the associative, experience-based, and emotion-laden thinking supposedly more congenial to females and certain minorities.

Those trying to overthrow the traditional curriculum found mathematics a hard nut to crack, however, because of the sequential nature of its content through the grades and its relationship to high school chemistry and physics. Nevertheless, education faculty eventually figured out how to reimagine the mathematics curriculum, too, so that it could march under the banner of social justice. As Alan Schoenfeld, the lead author of the high school standards in the 1989 NCTM report, put it, “the traditional curriculum was a vehicle for . . . the perpetuation of privilege.” The new approach would change all that.

Two theories lie behind the educators’ new approach to math teaching: “cultural-historical activity theory” and “constructivism.” According to cultural-historical activity theory, schooling as it exists today reinforces an illegitimate social order. Typical of this mindset is Brian Greer, a mathematics educator at Portland State University, who argues “against the goal of ‘algebra for all’ on the grounds that . . . most individuals in our society do not need to have studied algebra.” According to Greer, the proper approach to teaching math “now questions whether mathematics as a school subject should continue to be dominated by mathematics as an academic discipline or should reflect more fully the range of mathematical activities in which humans engage.” The primary role of math teachers, constructivists say in turn, shouldn’t be to explain or otherwise try to “transfer” their mathematical knowledge to students; that would be ineffective. Instead, they must help the students construct their own understanding of mathematics and find their own math solutions.
Nearly every math curriculum out there in the country today signs on to these theories. Nearly every elementary school teacher in the country signs on to these theories, and when you suggest a more-robust teaching strategy, their heads start doing 360's on their necks.

We had an argument last year that our 1st grader wasn't learning his math tables. The teacher asked my sister in horror if she wanted to do "drill and kill!?" My sister replied, "yes, of course!"

The idea that mastery requires regular practice and effort at memorization is actually thought to be destructive of a student's educational attainment. It's said to numb the brain and turn them off of learning.

I would maintain that the frustration which comes from not having basic mastery of the simplest of arithmetic is what is destructive of students' will to go on. If you can't rip through the easy stuff, won't you be scared of trying anything harder? Won't you be wasting your time working the easy part of a problem, instead of focusing on the harder part.

And most of all, educators' misguided view of math education completely precludes the idea that some of their students have an aptitude and a native desire to go on to careers in the math and sciences. These teachers are essentially slamming the door on that potential right from the start.

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