Math Education

2010 January 7
by Evan Lenz

Hey Evan,

Here’s an interesting blog post on math education I thought you might be interested in:

How Good Are UW Students in Math?


Hi Brian,

That was interesting and challenging, and a reminder of how far I’ve drifted from mainstream educational philosophy. Thanks for sharing it.

Math education is hard, because only some kids are interested in what’s being presented when it’s being presented. I remember just plowing through my Algebra textbook (before going to public high school). I was interested and ready and it was fun (even though I didn’t really connect it to anything useful other than doing math assignments). But when it’s a required thing, and the student isn’t interested, it’s a major uphill battle. Extend it for 12 years and it only gets worse. Regardless of what textbook is used, forced education is a messy, brute-force approach. I think it does more harm than good, totally killing whatever interest such people might otherwise have developed when they were ready.

I also think that the doomsday tone around poor math skills is blown way out of proportion. Dichotomies involving burger-flipping are ridiculous. Perhaps as a society we need to start releasing our death grip on the failing enterprise that is standardized education, and a let a rebirth happen. We should stop assuming we know everything future generations will need to know. Also, average math skills as determined by standardized tests are a poor indicator of our country’s capacity for innovation in science and other areas of inquiry. Great minds produce innovation and discovery, and they hardly depend on having learned the same thing as everyone else. Yet that’s what our education system is about—trying to ensure that everyone learns the same things at the same time. That’s a good recipe for killing innovation: mass homogenization.

Have you ever read “A Mathematician’s Lament”? I re-read it just now. It’s really eye-opening, a delight to read, and makes me want to do real math. :-)
A Mathematician’s Lament (PDF)

You should read the whole thing when you get a chance, but this much shorter article has some highlights:
Simple Math

Thanks again for the link,

P.S. I recently realized that school (including my algebra course) trained me to hate puzzles (not the jigsaw kind). I have a strong aversion to them if there’s not a right answer or if the procedure for getting to it isn’t right in front of me. Only recently have I allowed myself to develop some comfort around conundrums. Enjoyment comes next…

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  1. January 7, 2010

    Hi, Evan,

    I remember you from the Protocols group at Microsoft a coupla years ago and the LIFE is Good Unschooling Conference, too. Seems like y’all are happily settled into your life. Glad to hear it.

    I really enjoyed the Mathematician’s Lament and I often say that it took me a decade after college to recover enough from “math education” to enjoy math for its own beauty. School turns it into such drudgery. Well, school did that to me for poetry, literature, history, etc. too; so math isn’t unique in that respect, it’s just that as a nation we *worry* about it so much. We don’t really worry about people’s ability to “do” poetry. Nobody working at McDonald’s needs to calculate how many iambs you get back if you give them a dactyllic hexameter for a regular cheesburger which is worth a spondaic pentameter.

    What’s the old chestnut about the definition of insanity being a repetition of something over and over while expecting different results? The UW guy complains about the ineffective “new” methods of math instruction and wants to return to the “classic” methods but the new methods were introduced because the classic methods were such an abysmal failure. Obviously, we should try them again; maybe this time we’ll get a different result.

    Or not.

    • Evan Lenz permalink*
      January 7, 2010

      Hi Frank, It’s good to hear from you. Thanks for reading. You make a good point about *worry*. It’s pretty contagious too. Every time I read dire reports like that article, I start panicking and thinking “Am I doing the right thing for my kids?” But then I regain perspective and recognize it for what it is—socially conditioned fear that has little basis in reality. Re-reading “A Mathematician’s Lament” was a breath of fresh air, re-ignited my faith in the human imagination and drive for learning, and widened my perspective again. It’s amazing how worked up we can get when we look at things with a magnifying glass, taking a narrow, constricted view, and fool ourselves into thinking that what we’re looking at is the whole story, or all that matters.

      I’m also surprised at how little diversity there is among the 50-some comments on that article. Everyone is accepting the debate as framed and pitching their tent in one of the textbook camps. I find this way more alarming than the phenomenon of poor math test scores after 12 years of forced education. That no one is questioning the whole enterprise—that’s pretty disturbing.

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