Sunday, June 10, 2007

Little Ironies of the Math Wars

I found this quotation on an anti-Everyday Math site this morning:

"To have a great idea, have a lot of them." Thomas A. Edison

Could anything be more ironic? This site has links to the NYC-HOLD "Math Myths" piece I'm currently interrogating, and the blogger makes clear that those "multiple methods" for doing arithmetic that are developed in the Everyday Math books (and in other curricula such as INVESTIGATIONS IN NUMBER, DATA AND SPACE (aka, "TERC" by its detractors, who apparently find it hard to say or type "INVESTIGATIONS") are anathema to its predictably anonymous author. I imagine the wrath of the entire state of Connecticut and the mythical "Education Mafia" will come down on the author's head and the heads of the author's child(ren) for criticizing Everyday Math. :)

In any event, Edison calls for lots of ideas in order to have a great one. The reform haters want ONE idea about EVERYTHING in and out of mathematics and education, want ONE way to do EVERY calculation (gods forefend there could be more than one!), and want that idea to come NOT from the thought processes of children but from a Zeus on Math Olympus: the teacher, who of course must only teach the One True Way. Note well that if tomorrow some child in some classroom somewhere were to come up with a perfectly good, perfectly useful, perfectly sensible, perfectly logical way to do addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, or other elementary school mathematical task, and if - the notion is of course unthinkable! - her classmates agreed that this was a very good, clear, understandable way to do the task at hand - Edison and lots of other bright folks would cheer, but our hate-filled Connecticut parent and others of similar narrow mind would run to the Courant Institute or Cal State-LA for assurances from the Math Gods that there really is only one right way to do that task.

I'm not sure what is more outrageous: that parents who have a reasonable degree of education can be so blind to how limiting and ineffective this approach to mathematics teaching and learning is for most kids, or that professional mathematicians who should have a clear sense of the thought processes that go into doing mathematics can be so ignorant of how kids learn and think. Of course, mathematics education and teaching are NOT the purview of most professional mathematicians, and while some - Hyman Bass, Alexander Zvonkin, and others - have recognized their ignorance (not a bad thing) in this regard as they've moved from the complexities of doing original math to investing the complexities of teaching and learning and training teachers for school mathematics.

I suppose the point here might simply be: don't quote people who are far smarter than you unless you have thought deeply about how what they've said reflects on your worldview. You might just wish you'd stuck to quoting ideologues and political pundits.

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