Guest Blogger: Scott Kim, IV

Well, this is the last installment of Scott Kim’s blog post on transforming mathematics education!  These are all important issues, and when you think about them all at once, they seem insurmountable.  It takes each of us working one at a time in our local communities, as well as groups of us working together in broader communities, to effect a change.  What is crucial is that we not only discuss these issues, but we do something about them.  Those of us who participated in the discussion a month ago at the Bay Area Mathematical Artists Seminar are definitely interested in both discussing and doing.

Scott suggests we need to move past our differences and find constructive ways to act.  No, this isn’t easy.  But we need to do this to solve any problem, not just those surrounding mathematics education.  It’s time for some of us to start working on these issues, and many others of us to continue working.  We can’t just sit and watch, passively, any more.  It’s time to act.  What are you waiting for?

Level 4. Resistance from SOCIETY (quarreling crew)

Sailing is a team sport. You can’t get where you want to go without a cooperative crew. Similarly, math education reform is a social issue. You can’t change how math is taught unless parents, teachers, administrators and policy makers are on board. Most adults cling to the way they were taught as if it were the only way to teach math, largely out of ignorance — they simply aren’t aware of other approaches.

Here are three ways society needs to change the way it thinks about math and math education in order for change to happen.

4a. Attitude. The United States has an attitude problem when it comes to math teachers. First, we underpay and under-respect teachers. And the situation is only getting worse as math graduates flock to lucrative high-tech jobs instead of the teaching profession. The book The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way describes how FInland turned their educational system around — they decided to pay teachers well, set high qualification standards, and give teachers considerable autonomy to teach however they think is best, with the remarkable result that student respect for teachers is extremely high.

Second, it is socially acceptable, even a badge of honor, to say that you were never good at math. You would never say the same thing about reading. Many people do not in fact read books, but no one would publicly brag that they were never good at reading. Our society supports the idea that parents should read to their kids at night, but perpetuates the idea that being no good at math is just fine.

Solution: respect teachers by paying them well, and value math literacy as much as we value reading literacy.

4b. Vision. The national conversation about math education in the United States is locked in a debate about whether we should teach the basics, or the concepts. As a result we see over the decades that the pendulum swings back and forth between No Child Left Behind and standardized testing on one extreme, and New Math and Common Core Math on the other extreme. As long as the pendulum keeps swinging, we will never settle on stable solution. The resolution, of course, is that we need both. In practice, schools that overemphasize rote math find that they must supplement with conceptual exercises, and schools that overemphasize conceptual understanding find that they must supplement with mechanical drill. We need both rote skills and conceptual understanding, just as kids learning to read need both the mechanical skills of grammar and vocabulary, and the conceptual skills of comprehension and argument construction.

Solution: We need a vision of math education that seamlessly integrates mechanical skills and conceptual understanding, in a way that works within the practical realities of teacher abilities and schoolday schedules. To form a vision, don’t just ask people what they want. A vision should go further than conventional wisdom. As Henry Ford is reported to have said (but probably didn’t), “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Or as Steve Jobs did say, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

4c. The will to act. As a child I grumbled about the educational system I found myself in. As a young adult I started attending math education conferences (regional meetings of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics), and was astonished to find that all the thousands of teachers at the conference knew perfectly well what math education should look like — full of joyful constructive activities that challenged kids to play with ideas and think deeply. Yet they went back to their schools and largely continued business as usual. They knew what to do, but were unwilling or unable to act, except at a very small scale.

Solution: Yes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. And change is slow. But if we’re to get where we want to go, we need to think bigger. Assume that big long lasting change is possible, and in the long term, inevitable. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I’m starting my small group. Others I know are starting theirs. What about you? 


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Vince Matsko

Mathematician, educator, consultant, artist, puzzle designer, programmer, blogger, etc., etc. @cre8math

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