Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Death of math: My Response to Gary Rubinstein's Recent Blog Post

At the recommendation of twitter-friend Justen Eason (@MisterEason), I read the following blog post by Gary Rubinstein (@garyrubinstein): The Death of math. Justen issued the "What say you?" challenge, so here is my response (it will probably make more sense if you read Gary's blog post first).

Gary says, "Few people love Mathematics more than I do." I feel the same way about science and Mathematics. As a science teacher I tried (and even now, as an Educational Technology Specialist, I try), to exhibit and model my love for science every day. For many students, this enthusiasm is enough for them to at least try to understand the concepts. I did notice, however, as the years went by, as more emphasis was being placed on high-stakes testing, and as my class sizes grew, more and more of my students were not affected by the "love of science" approach.

As a Chemistry and Physics teacher, I understood inherently the value of Mathematics as the language of these two sciences, but it became more and more difficult to get students to share my love of science when they were deficient in their math skills. I have always aspired to being a polymath, but I quickly learned that few others share that aspiration.  "Just prepare us for the test" became a common student mantra.

I think the vast majority of teachers today have a genuine love for their respective disciplines, but we have to realize that many students will never share that same love of the discipline. The trick is to get them to find relevance through some discipline for which they already have a budding or maturing passion.

When I first started teaching Physics back in the mid-1990s, my dream was to write a science curriculum that taught science concepts from a historical perspective by introducing both noted and obscure scientists, and the related scientific and mathematical concepts and discoveries, as they actually came into existence. I could think of no better way to teach science than in an interdisciplinary context with history and social studies while reinforcing Mathematics, reading, writing, and grammar along the way.  Thanks to a never-ending parade of standardized tests and ever-more-rigid curriculum and scope-and-sequences, my dream remains unfulfilled.

Gary says, "The biggest problem with math education is that there are way too many topics that teachers are required to teach."  There is no denying that there is a considerable amount of sequential learning that has to take place in Mathematics in order for students to be successful at the higher levels. Perhaps a survey of Mathematics concepts in middle school or junior high school could lay the foundation for students to make decisions about potential focus areas in Mathematics later in the process.

It has been my experience that teachers of Mathematics have been most affected by the standardized, high-stakes testing mania. I see many Mathematics teachers who are no longer passionate about Mathematics as a discipline because they are forced to focus on specific areas to the exclusion of others.  This lack of Mathematics breadth shows up in the higher science disciplines and hampers the ultimate success of students in both areas of study.

Gary's "first thing I'd do to 'fix' math" is this: "Greatly reduce the number of required topics, and expand the topics that remained so they can be covered more deeply with thought-provoking lessons and activities."  I think this is a good idea, but to implement, it will require educators to step up and take control of the politics of public education. Current dictates flow almost exclusively from non-educators and wealthy self-appointed "experts" who think they know what is best for all of us.  Educators must take back the entire business of education.  In our current environment of testing in an environment of fear and intimidation, this is not likely to happen any time soon.

Gary's second idea for the reform of the teaching of Mathematics is, "make Mathematics, beyond the eighth grade, into electives."  I have mixed feelings about this idea, but I certainly see the necessity of this approach given limited resources in our schools.  While certain topics and concepts could be advanced to a much higher level with this approach, I feel that a lot of the color and beauty of Mathematics would be lost by this approach.  Perhaps an interdisciplinary approach similar to the idea of teaching science via historical individuals would help here. The emergence of these disciplines through history is a logical sequence in which to learn the concepts, and I believe knowing the historical context of these concepts' development would give the information more of an opportunity to stick with students. In addition, think of the crossover possibilities with this approach with Mathematics AND science, perhaps simultaneously!

A couple of years ago, I sat in on a few sessions of an SAT test-prep program. The audience was high-achievers with the idea that, with this program, they could squeeze out a few more precious points on their SAT scores. The Mathematics review piqued my interest the most. While there was no discounting that a firm foundation in Mathematics fundamentals is essential, the slight tricks and reminders that were given out would help all students, not just the chosen elite. Why weren't these simple yet effective tricks and tips not shared with all students? Of the simple tools I saw, I can only imagine the large number of students who would benefit from them.

Gary's example of number patterns and perfect squares was an "aha" moment for me. In all my years, I have never seen this "proof without words" before. How handy and helpful this would have been if I had been exposed to this earlier in my life!  All students deserve exposure to these types of simple truths, which is why I have a little trouble with the idea of making post-eighth grade Mathematics classes electives.  But what do I know? I've always loved Mathematics.

I really like Gary's distinction between "math" and "Mathematics."  I often feel the same way about "science" and "Science."

Perhaps the solution is to turn students into life-long learners instead of for-the-test learners.  I was blessed with parents who lived and breathed education. I benefited from a new set of World Book encyclopedias in our home at an early age. I have many pleasant memories from my childhood when I would just sit in a chair and leaf through page after shiny page of the Word Book encyclopedia. My dad let me dissect a frog when I was five years old, and he was always making toys for me out of various scraps he found around our house. Of course I had "real" toys, too, but I think the handmade ones were the best. As a result of my early childhood experiences, learning seemed a natural part of daily life. I say a little prayer of thanksgiving every day for being blessed with the parents I had.

Love of learning has to be instilled at an early age and constantly reinforced.  Perhaps my ideas of studying science and Mathematics through history and Gary's two ideas to "fix" Mathematics should start much earlier than either of us proposes. All parents and educators should make "going to school" an enjoyable activity that is yearned for with great enthusiasm instead of a necessary evil that must be endured to get to the next stage of life.

When I was in the classroom, I would tell my students that, if I ever won the lottery, I would go back to a university (most likely Texas A&M again) and take random classes that I found interesting, just for fun. Most of my students thought I was crazy.  I am hopeful that my comment inspired at least a few of my students to become life-long learners.  I cannot imagine going through a day without learning something new, and I make a point of thanking people who teach me new things, especially if it is a student!

Gary ends his blog post with this paragraph:

"In my title, I was very deliberate to write 'math' with a lowercase 'm' rather than 'Mathematics' with a capital one.  The 'math' that clutters up textbooks nowadays is not, generally, worthwhile 'Mathematics.'  So maybe an unintended consequence of the common core standards will be, as I wrote in my title 'The Death of math,' But maybe it will also be the rebirth of Mathematics."

For a long while, I have felt that we cannot "evolve" our educational system to a better place. A complete revolution must take place. Perhaps the "Death of math (and science)" is necessary and proper so that we may all chant, "Long Live Mathematics (and Science)!"

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Mobile Blogging

Just installed the mobile blogger app on my smartphone. Just a post to test it out.