Dumbing Down 2

Saturday 14 April 2007 at 10:42 am | In Articles | 8 Comments

In Dumbing Down I mentioned the concern about mathematics education in Washington State USA. There is now a campaign there about ‘reform math’ which appears to be a system of education that tries to avoid teaching mathematics skills. As part of the campaign you can watch videos on YouTube from meteorologists Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth (which unfortunately stops half-way through) and Math Education: A University View. The latter video claims that California abandoned ‘reform math’ some years ago and as a result had an astonishing increase in students’ mathematical performances. You can read more on the campaign’s website Where’s the Math?

I shall be following this debate because, where the US goes, the UK often follows. This dumbing down of mathematical education may be linked to the shortage of good mathematics teachers since such ‘reform math’ can be taught by non-mathematicians. It’s clear that the descent into a downward spiral soon follows.

In the UK there has been a suggestion of ‘bribing’ students to study maths and science A levels ‘Pay students’ to revive science – are today’s students that shallow? How about good mathematics teaching which imbues a sense of wonder and delight?

 Alexandre Borovik in Division of Labour suggests that

The era of extensive mathematical education of majority is over — we have to develop a model of intensive mathematical education of minority.

He is not convinced that the mathematical education community can do this. I like the idea of extending the syllabus for those students who have the ability but I am also concerned about not leaving mathematics to an elite totally cut-off from the rest of the country.

 Hence my previous question in Dumbing Down

Is it possible to teach mathematics to a larger range of students without compromising on the level taught?

PS I just have to add this quote from The Unapologetic Mathematician discussing this issue because it encapsulates what I have been trying to say for years though I fear it fell on deaf ears

The algorithm comes first, and understanding comes later. Mathematics simply is. It cannot be negotiated. Mathematics education as realized in the NCTM standards has been taken over by sociologists, or even Critical Theorists. They are vehemently opposed to the seemingly-authoritarian rote method and saying “just do it like this and don’t ask why”. Never mind the fact that in this case “why” comes naturally after “how”. And it’s about time for mathematicians to come down and start kicking some ass over this, or we’ll be left with nobody capable of replacing us.


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  1. About students being shallow. I think having the money as an incentive is always something which students look out for. Even for universities- scholarships or bursarires appear attractive in the prospectuses. It seems the problem is that students need motivating and the majority maybe aren’t able to motivate themselves.

    For example EMA. (although unrelated) was a good way to get someone to attend all there lessons. The thing is that students are not asking to be paid to take ‘exams’, however it seems necessary to bribe them. Is this the last resort?

    Like I said in Mathematics under the Microscope, it seems that we’re going back to what Pythagoras did to be able to teach. Pay the students. Sounds a bit dumb but would they rather have more people doing maths for the money or because they want to? I guess secondary school education is what really needs to be looked at.

    Comment by beans — Saturday 14 April 2007 12:46 pm #

  2. […] math education From over at Mathematics Weblog (a paragon of naming wit), I find a few videos on YouTube dealing with math education. The first […]

    Pingback by More math education « The Unapologetic Mathematician — Saturday 14 April 2007 2:35 pm #

  3. I wholeheartedly support the proposal that

    And it’s about time for mathematicians to come down and start kicking some ass over this, or we’ll be left with nobody capable of replacing us.

    I would extend the invitation for joining the ass-kicking exercise to our physics and chemistry colleagues. In the case of physics, it could be slightly easier to convince politicians that the education in crisis. I heard from my physics colleagues an assessment (which later made its way into an editorial in “The Guardian”) that British physics education still can produce, although with some difficulty, sufficient number of highly trained physicists for the proposed programme of new generation of nuclear power station, or for the Trident replacement programme — but not for both.

    However, last year I had a chance to talk to a member of Parlament (Labour) who sits on the Parlament’s Science Committee; he would die rather than accept that there were any problems with education and that the workforce training issues could jeopardisse the revival of nuclear power programme.

    Still, I believe that the two nuclear programmes are soft spots on the politician’s asses when it comes to aiming your kick.

    Comment by Alexandre Borovik — Sunday 15 April 2007 7:51 am #

  4. More on the same – see The Future of the Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the UK manufacturing and skills base, a web version of a Submission to the Defence Select Committee in November 2006 by Scientists for Global Responsibility.

    I have also found a fascinating historic document from the previous round of the Trident debate, a paper: J J Wellington, Teaching the unteachable- physics education and nuclear weapons, Phys. Educ. 17 (1962) 106-110 (available via Athens).

    Comment by Alexandre Borovik — Sunday 15 April 2007 8:41 am #

  5. […] April 16th, 2007 in math, random Lately there have been a number of posts discussing the state of contemporary elementary maths teaching. While I certainly agree that […]

    Pingback by Shall we abolish pencil and paper arithmetic? « Setting the World on Fire one Flag at a Time — Monday 16 April 2007 6:06 pm #

  6. I looked at the video “Math Education: An inconvenient truth” – this is scary – dumbing down mathematics in this way will surely lead to catastrophe, I hope society will countersteer (as the video self-evidently shows, this is already happening ;-).

    Although I have to disagree with one thing I read at the quote in the bottom of this blog post:

    “Mathematics simply is” – this is a platonistic assumption held by many mathematicians, and which leads to alienation of many students to math, who don’t “get” why (-1)x(-1) = 1, for instance; or who think complex numbers can have no relevance to the “real” world.

    I recommend the book “Where Mathematics comes from” from George Lakoff and Raphael Nunez:

    I think the correct way to math education is this: first the algorithm, rote learning etc -> then focus on the concepts, explain the _why_, why it is sensible to do it this way or that (see the Lakoff/Nunez book for this).

    Math Education should be a mix of algorithms and concepts; leaving out either is to the detriment of math understanding.

    Comment by Günther Greindl — Sunday 22 April 2007 11:06 am #

  7. Having the right teacher is crucial. That was my experience in school, and I see it all the time with the kids I tutor. If we can get the right teachers in front of these kids, that’s when you’ll see performance.


    Comment by Boulder Math Tutor — Monday 21 May 2007 9:15 pm #

  8. […] comes towards the end of a forceful but, I think, well-reasoned post which I found via Mathematics Weblog. As I understand it, the gist of the post is that in mathematics we need to learn how how before we […]

    Pingback by How before why « Since it is not … — Thursday 9 August 2007 10:55 pm #

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