My Top Ten Issues in Math Education

[Originally posted at Math Mama Writes. Revised for The DeMorgan Forum.]

 

10. Textbooks are trouble. Corollary: The one doing the work is the one doing the learning. (Is it the text and the teacher, or is it the student?)
Hmm, this shouldn’t be last, but as I look over the list they all seem important. I guess this isn’t a well-ordered domain. A few years back I read Textbook Free: Kicking the Habit, an article by Chris Shore on getting away from using a textbook (unfortunately no longer available online). I was inspired to take charge of my teaching in a way I really hadn’t before. Now I decide how to organize the course. I still use the textbook for its homework repositories, but I decide on my units and use the text as a resource. See dy/dan on being less helpful (so the students will learn more), and Bob Kaplan on becoming invisible.

9. Earlier is not better.
The schools are pushing academics earlier and earlier. That’s not a good idea. If young people learn to read when they’re ready for it, they enjoy reading. They read more and more; they get better and better at it; reading serves them well. (See Peter Gray‘s post on this.) The same can happen with math. Daniel Greenberg, working at a Sudbury school (democratic schools, where kids do not have enforced lessons) taught  a group of 9 to 12 year olds all of arithmetic in 20 hours. They were ready and eager, and that’s all it took.

In 1929, L.P. Benezet, superintendent of schools in Manchester, New Hampshire, believed that waiting until later would help children learn math more effectively. The experiment he conducted, waiting until 5th or 6th grade to offer formal arithmetic lessons, was very successful. (His report was published in the Journal of the NEA.)

8. Real mathematicians ask why and what if… 
If you’re trying to memorize it, you’re probably being pushed to learn something that hasn’t built up meaning for you. See Julie Brennan’s article on Memorizing Math Facts. Yes, eventually you want to have the times tables memorized, just like you want to know words by sight. But the path there can be full of delicious entertainment. Learn your multiplications as a meditation, as part of the games you play, …

Just like little kids, who ask why a thousand times a day, mathematicians ask why. Why are there only 5 Platonic (regular) solids? Why does a quadratic (y=x2), which gives a U-shaped parabola as its graph, have the same sort of U-shaped graph after you add a straight line equation (y=2x+1) to it? (A question asked and answered by James Tanton in this video.) Why does the anti-derivative give you area? Why does dividing by a fraction make something bigger? Why is the parallel postulate so much more complicated than the 4 postulates before it? Then came “What if we change that postulate?” And from that, many non-Euclidean geometries were born.

7. Math itself is the authority – not the curriculum, not the teacher, not the standards committee.
You can’t want students to do it the way you do. You have to be fearless, and you need to see the connections. (Read this from Math Mojo.)

6. Math is not arithmetic, although arithmetic is a part of it. (And even arithmetic has its deep side.)
Little kids can learn about infinity, geometry, probability, patterns, symmetry, tiling, map colorings, tangrams, … And they can do arithmetic in another base to play games with the meaning of place value. (I wrote about base eight here, and base three here.)

5. Math is not facts (times tables) and procedures (long division), although those are a part of it; more deeply, math is about concepts, connections, patterns. It can be a game, a language, an art form. Everything is connected, often in surprising and beautiful ways.
My favorite math ed quote of all time comes from Marilyn Burns: “The secret key to mathematics is pattern.

U.S. classrooms are way too focused on procedure in math. It’s hard for any one teacher to break away from that, because the students come to expect it, and are likely to rebel if asked to really think. (See The Teaching Gap, by James Stigler.)

See George Hart for the artform. The language of math is the language of logic. Check out any Raymond Smullyan book for loads of silly logic puzzles, and go to islands full of vegetarian truthtellers and cannibal liars. Or check out some of Tanya Khovanova’s posts.

4. Students are willing to do the deep work necessary to learn math if and only if they’re enjoying it.
Which means that grades and coercion are really destructive. Maybe more so than in any other subject. People need to feel safe to take the risks that really learning math requires. Read Joe at For the Love of Learning. I’m not sure if this is true in other cultures. Students in Japan seem to be very stressed from many accounts I read; they also do some great problem-solving lessons. (Perhaps they feel stressed but safe. Are they enjoying it?)

3. Games are to math as picture books are to reading – a delightful starting point.
Let the kids play games (or make up their own games) instead of “doing math”, and they might learn more math. Denise’s game that’s worth 1000 worksheets (addition war and its variations) is one place to start. And Pam Sorooshian has this to say about dice.  Learn to play games: Set, Blink, Quarto, Blokus, Chess, Nim, Connect Four… Change the rules. Decide which rules make the most interesting play.

Besides games, consider puzzles, cooking, building, science, programming, art, math stories, and math history for ways to bring meaningful math into your lives. (Here’s a list of good games, puzzles, and toys.)  If you play around with all those, you can have a pretty math-rich life without ever having a formal math lesson.

2. If you’re going to teach math, you need to know it deeply, and you need to keep learning.
Read Liping Ma. Arithmetic is deeper than you knew (see #6). Every mathematical subject you might teach is connected to many, many others. Heck, I’m still learning about multiplication myself. In a blog conversation (at a wonderful blog that is, sadly, gone now), I once said, “You don’t want the product to be ‘the same kind of thing’.  …   5 students per row times 8 rows is 40 students. So I have students/row * rows = students.” Owen disagreed with me, and Burt’s comment on my multiplication post got me re-reading that discussion. I think Owen and I may both be right, but I have no idea how to do what he suggests and use a compass and straightedge to multiply. I’m looking forward to playing with that some day. I think it will give me new insight.

1. If you’re going to teach math, you need to enjoy it.
The best way to help kids learn to read is to read to them, lots of wonderful stories, so you can hook them on it. The best way to help kids learn math is to make it a game (see #3), or to make dozens of games out of it. Accessible mysteries. Number stories. Hook them on thinking. Get them so intrigued, they’ll be willing to really sweat.

That’s my list. What’s yours?
What do you see as the biggest issues or problems in math education?

 

[You may also enjoy reading the discussion my original post prompted back in 2010.]

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