Friday, September 09, 2005

Math Pedagogy

Two months ago I received the following email from a reader of this blog:

[B]y the way, I'd be very interested in your opinions as
to the direction of high school math teaching in this
country. As an engineer, this is something very dear
to me... I'm personally very much a believer in the
teaching of traditional pure mathematics at the high
school level. Time and again I see its relevance in my
professional work, and I'm extremely troubled at the
continual dumbing down of pure mathematics teaching
(and I saw many examples of this in the UK before I

I sincerely hope that idiotic notions of complex
numbers/integral calculus/group theory being
"irrelevant" and "old fashioned" doesn't infect US
thinking as much as it has done in the UK. I'd like to
humbly suggest this whole area as a great topic for a
future entry on your blog...

Let's discuss.

In this country we have influential people talking about "math for social justice". In this country we have influential people talking about "ethnomathematics". In this country we have influential people stating that black children learn differently than white children. In this country we have people talking about students' "constructing their own knowledge".

In short, we have some influential people who are doing just about everything they can to destroy math education in this country. But why? My answer: because they see disparities in outcomes and just can't stand that. They want everyone to be equal (but some can be more equal than others), and my frequent readers know exactly what allusion I'm making here. If everyone can do (watered down) math, then no group of people looks bad.

In California we have teachers who cringe at the mention of the state's math content standards. They know what students need to learn, and they don't want or need the state to tell them what to teach. We have teachers who swear by the College Preparatory Mathematics program, which is so bad that it's no longer approved for adoption. All over you hear about the absolute necessity to make things directly applicable to students' lives, despite the fact that part of education is learning about things that don't necessarily relate to you at precisely this moment in time. Proofs and derivations are out, discovery and individual techniques are in.

Fortunately, despite all this, there seems to be progress being made. Who would like to contribute their thoughts on the topic?


KimJ said...

I may have commented on this here before, but my graduate school offered a mathematics course for elementary school teachers. Here are the topics covered: "Mathematical ways of thinking, number sequences, numeracy, symmetry, regular polygons, plane curves, methods of counting, probability and data analysis." Keep in mind that by "probability" they mean something along the lines of "If I roll a die three times, what is the probability that I get three sixes?"

Most of the students complain BITTERLY about having to take this course. They honestly believe that if they're not teaching past the sixth grade, they shouldn't have to know any math past the sixth grade level. I think innumeracy among such teachers and their deep-seated hatred of mathematics is a large part of what is causing the destruction of math education. It creates a lifelong fear of the subject from children who sense the same fear in their teachers.

Darren said...

Liping Ma's book Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics should be required reading in every elementary teacher credentialing course. Ma explains what America's elementary teachers lack when compared to their international counterparts.

John Allen Paulos' seminal work Innumeracy identifies what happens when a lack of mathematical knowledge permeates the population.

Sherman Stein's books, in particular Strength In Numbers and How The Other Half Thinks, are written for the mathematical layman but teach some fairly involved concepts.

There are my Amazon plugs for the day. Now if only I knew how to get a cut for sending people there to buy them!