Scandalous Mathematical Thoughts

Are these hands trying to get the attention of a tutor?

Since nearly every adult in our society has received at least some formal education, most of us have opinions on what should and should not be taught in our schools. For a very significant segment of the population, math in general, and algebra in particular, revive unpleasant memories. That said, many of those who make little direct use of math in their daily lives still seem to recognize it as having an essential place in everyone’s education.

This fascinating New York Times article suggests some radical changes to not only what we teach but also how we view the role of mathematics in our lives. The story is longer than most of the ones I link to but, for anyone interested in the subject, it really is worth reading all the way through because it smoothly builds toward the best parts near the end. Please do not skip over the ideas about quantitative reasoning and about turning mathematics into one of the liberal arts “making it as accessible and welcoming as sculpture or ballet”.

Of course, no major article like that is going to go unchallenged. My favourite of the rebuttals is this one by a BC physicist who emphasizes the idea that we are “training people to be members of civilization, not employees”.

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3 Responses to Scandalous Mathematical Thoughts

  1. Norma says:

    I really liked “this one” too. These were the thoughts that I was having as I read the New York article….I really think that we need to look at how math is taught.

    When I was teaching elementary school, I was expected to teach arithmetic. OMG! Someone who did not really understand anything but the mechanics of arithmetic was expected to pass along this inadequate information to 30 eager to learn students. I would review the pages the night before in a bit of a sweat…..prayers for inspiration and prayers that I would be forgiven for this lesson. When I suggested to my principal that someone come into my class and teach my children arithmetic and I go to theirs and teach language arts….I was given a very threatening look that communicated that I was very much expected to be a good math teacher.
    I am sure that I passed on the solidity of “math is hard, just with the furrow in my brow and the curtness in my voice when “thank god” math time was over. My confusion was clear and my relief was evident. I have passed on my fear of math to quite a few students…..not expecting them to understand anything but the mechanics that I could teach….and not really having any faith that this would be very useful to them in their future years of education.
    I believe that there were many elementary teacher with this moral dilemma. Clearly, given these stats on passing and failing grades of regular students.

    Some people believe that this problem begins with “hard” math….high school or college…I would like to say that this problems has its roots in the initial conditions….really poor arithmetic teachers.

    • Brian says:

      Norma, you may not have done as much damage as you fear. In elementary school I had one teacher who was fabulous with art and absolutely clueless at math. I simply ignored what she had to say on the subject and stuck to whatever methods and interpretations of my own made the most sense. No harm done and I started to like art.

      • Norma says:

        Thank you, Brian, for your kindness.

        However, you may have had the neurology to have “methods and interpretations”….most of my students were as dependent on the teachers methods and interpretations as I was. My interpretations as a child would have been lost in the beauty of how the numbers flowed on the page….my favourite were 8’s and 3’s….and the feelings I had when I had performed the perfect 8 on the page….would Sister notice how beautifully I drew that 8? She never did….same old F.


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