Friday, December 21, 2007

"If math were a color. . ." and other crimes against humanity.

If you're a fan of the Math Wars, you've heard about the question in the first edition of the EVERDAY MATH K-5 curriculum, "If math were a color, it would probably be ______ because ________." This particular question has probably engendered more ridicule and garnered more notoriety than anything associated with the NCTM Standards of 1989 on, and the progressive reform curricula that emerged from NSF grants in the early 1990s. After Googling on the question, I've concluded that no one on the planet has the slightest idea what could possibly be the point of asking this question. It has resulted in so much negative feedback that it has been dropped from revisions and subsequent editions of EVERYDAY MATHMATICS. Indeed, as recently as last week, Andy Isaacs, an author of the program who works at the University of Chicago Mathematics Project (UCSMP) posted on math-teach at the Math Forum:

As for the "If math were a color, ..." question, it appeared in our
first edition in a Time to Reflect section at the end of the first
unit in fifth grade, a unit that focused on prime and composite
numbers, factoring, figurate numbers, and so on. The first edition of
fifth grade was published in 1996. The "If math were a color, ..."
question was deleted in the second edition, which was published in
2001, and the entire Time to Reflect feature was deleted from the
current edition, the third, so this question has not appeared for
some years in EM.
I suppose that since Andy, whom I've met and consider a friend, is washing his hands of the question and it's been dropped entirely from the series, I should let sleeping inquiries lie, even if the folks at Mathematically Correct, NYC-HOLD, and countless "parents-with-pitchforks" groups and web-sites (as well as right-wing pundits like Michelle Malkin continue to make "big" political points about how programs like EM are sending us and our children down the fast track to enslavement by those ever-inscrutable Asians (that Ms. Malkin is herself of Filipino extraction should in no way be taken as a mitigating circumstance in her willingness to help scare the James Jesus Angleton

out of hard-working Americans with the reliable threat of hordes of Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Singaporeans, and Indians, in particular) overtaking us in the constant battle to be #1 in anything and everything. Never mind that it's actually those sneaky Finns who top the latest list of countries that outperform the US in mathematics on an international test. No one is yet recommending that we adopt the Finnish national math curriculum and load up on glug and besides, the Finns themselves are not quite so sanguine about the situation. However, racist that I am, I just can't get sufficiently frightened by images of invading Finns. Asians, of course, are notorious for "teeming," and there's no question that they're going to overwhelm American any second, no doubt due to that famous "math gene" they're all born with.*

But let's get back to the point (sometimes my own digressions frighten even me). What about that "If math were a color" question? Am I seriously planning to defend it as not only "harmless" but actually sensible? Those of you who know me are no doubt sure that's exactly what I claim.

My argument is brief, but I believe it's quite reasonable:

It is increasingly common practice for some high school teachers and some professors of mathematics and mathematics education, especially those working with future or would-be future mathematics teachers, to ask their students for a brief "mathematical autobiography" at the beginning of the term. It's a way to get to know more about students and to find out their attitudes towards and experiences with mathematics (does that seem like a trivial thing to anyone? While I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if it did given some of the folks who teach mathematics, it's nonetheless the case that some educators think it's quite valuable to know how education students think AND feel about the subject(s) they propose to teach, and how students think and feel about a subject they are expected to learn).

Now, if you're teaching K-5, especially if you're teaching K-2, how would you propose to get students to relate their beliefs about and attitudes towards mathematics? Direct questioning, like direct instruction, is not always effective, which is why many child psychologists work with their clients through playing games and other indirect methods for getting insight into experiences and feelings about them. The question"If math were a color. . .?" is a perfectly imaginative and reasonable way to get children to explore and reveal some of their feelings and beliefs about mathematics. The important thing is not, of course, to elicit a particular response or "right answer" (and isn't that a radical concept?), but to help students to find a non-threatening, non-intellectualized way to talk about math. Heaven forfend that child psychology should enter into any elementary school teacher's classroom or pedagogical repertoire, of course. Sensible, rational, intellectual questions only, most particularly in math.

*For the irony-impaired, that's satire.

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