Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Higher-Level Mathematics

I nearly spluttered tea all over the place while reading this article in The Boston Globe today.

The gist: because lots of teachers-to-be didn't pass the new math section of their teacher-certification exam here in Massachusetts, the children they will go on to teach will suffer an inability to grasp the concepts taught in their eventual classes. Now, I can see that if you are going to teach higher-level math, or specialized math like trigonometry or calculus, you'd better know what you are doing. But somehow, I managed to be a pretty damn good early childhood teacher without extensive knowledge of calculus, trigonometry, or statistics and probability. In fact, I've managed to live a pretty damn full life without extensive knowledge in these subjects! (Recently, though, statistics and probability have piqued my interest, and so now I do know quite a bit about them - read about that here.)

My gut reaction upon reading this was outrage, and since I finished the article I've been trying to figure out why.

Partly, it's because of the attitude here in Massachusetts that testing is the key to all learning, and if we can only get everyone to pass the extensive testing required to graduate, they will miraculously be prepared for Life. So untrue! And thousands upon thousands of children who don't test well, or would rather be learning in their own way, or what they want to learn about, suffer for it. In fact, I think that they suffer for the rest of their lives - the lesson that they learned in school is to put away their interests and curiosity, to shut up and study for the test.

But also, there is the issue of educators' bragging rights. In this day and age, our young people graduate without the knowledge to compare credit card offers (it's true! read about it here), yet educators want them all to know high-level, theoretical math. From the Globe article: State education leaders enacted the new certification requirement so Bay State students can better compete internationally. Massachusetts lags behind parts of China and other Asian countries on international measures, even though the state routinely tops national standardized tests. Just last week, the American Institutes for Research released a report entitled "Why Massachusetts Students, the Best in the US, Lag Behind Best-in-the-World Students of Hong Kong."

I wondered, why do we care so much about our global standing in mathematics? More to the point - why does this standing matter to Massaschusetts' students? Chances are good that not many of them aspire to be mathematicians, and even if they did, how many actuaries or trigonometry professors could one state really employ?

But here is what got me maddest about this article: the assumption that because of the ignorance of the teachers-in-training in higher-level mathematics, their future students are doomed to ignorance, too. All the blame for the children's (percieved)shortcomings is put on their teachers, as if the children cannot learn without somebody force-feeding them the standard curriculum!

Here is a short-list of Things My 8-Year-Old Knows More About Than Me: How to do preferred searches on our library web site. Comets, the solar system, and space in general. Dinosaurs. Dragons. Greek and Egyptian mythology. Volcanoes, fossils, and rocks. There's more too, but the point is, Luke knows about all these subjects because he desired, very much, to learn about them.

I know with certainty that, should he want to learn about trigonometry, algebra, organic chemistry, or countless other high-level subjects that I, his teacher, know little or nothing about, he will learn about them.

I'll help by guiding him to the books and/or people who'll help him learn - not by becoming an expert in the chosen subjects. I mean, whose learning is it, anyway, his or mine?


Carla said...

In case anyone is interested, you can see a practice mathematics subtest at the website

Marcia said...

So well said, as usual. Thank you.

Susan said...

My kids most love to learn things that I know nothing about! It is downright counterproductive for me to know too much. They seem to prefer when we are all in it together, wading through, figuring it out. They don't want me to have all the answers. They want to learn things and teach me. I don't know what that would look like in the classroom...

Rana said...

It is so true. We learn more when we are all learning it together. And you are right if it is something he really wants to know about he will do everything he can to find the answers, and we will be there to help if they need us.

Thanks for your "hug" by the way!

topsytechie said...

Sounds like a terrific letter to the editor, btw!

Dana @ Our Sunny Side said...

I was thinking of something similar the other day after seeing a Rosetta Stone language program commercial. The people on the commercial boast that they learned more in two hours with the home program than they did in their entire classroom class. Without realizing it they are a great commercial for homeschooling and interest-led learning.

Khakismum said...

TAG! I've tagged you in a game.

Go here to read the game and play along.

Alicia said...

All good points. I do think that in the standard school setting kids unlearn how to learn things on their own though (or want to), so they may not feed their own interests in math if they don't have a good guide, so to speak.

And I think the reason everybody cares so much about our math scores is because we are falling short in this generation for engineers, programmers and other techs. Our colleges are filled with students from other countries in these fields and the perception is that if we fall behind in these fields we will lose a real global edge in many industries.

sgaissert said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. You wrote so well about so many things about math that are a problem! And I hope your reason for learning statistics is going well.