Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Pinning The Blame On The Wrong Donkeys: A Response to "The Problem With Math Education"

The latest post on the blog "The Math Mojo Chronicles" states in part:

The Problem with Math Education
Filed under: math education, public schools; Author: Brian; Posted: December 8, 2008 at 8:18 pm;

Well, of course it’s not the problem, just one of many, but here it goes…

Somehow along the way, people got the feeling that math is supposed to always be right, and that math teachers are supposed to know all the answers.

Math has gotten the reputation of being an authoritarian science. I don’t think this is the fault of mathematicians, I think it is the fault of many math educators who have tried to turn mathematics from an art and science into a “subject.”

Math education is all too often about “standards” and “curricula” that students take “tests” about that they are “graded” on.

If Archimedes was to take a high-school math test today, he would be unfamiliar with the jargon, and would find little value in the trite little multiple-choice and partial credit nonsense that passes for assessment.

On the other hand, he could run rings around the math teachers with his knowledge of actual mathematics, and could twist their pedagogical dogma into moebius bands.

Trying to shove math into the education industry’s rubric is one of the worst educational crimes I can think of. School math seldom has anything to do with actual math, except for the very rare cases where an inspired person is doing the teaching. And when that happens, that person is invariably in trouble with the administration....

Click here to read the entire blog post.

A Mathematics Educator's Reply

I posted the following response to Brian's blog entry this morning:

As usual, I find your use of language problematic in a variety of ways. First, let’s take:

“Math has gotten the reputation of being an authoritarian science. I don’t think this is the fault of mathematicians, I think it is the fault of many math educators who have tried to turn mathematics from an art and science into a ’subject.’”

My gripes here are first as an ex-English teacher: do you mean “authoritarian” or, more likely, “authoritative”? The latter makes more sense in the context you’re speaking about, but the former is possible if you mean to imply that mathematics is somehow about bossing people around. Of course, mathematics can do no such thing, though mathematicians and those who use mathematics certainly try to do that a great deal of the time.

Second, I would be awfully careful about how you use the term “math educators” these days. In the “Math Wars” era, that’s come to mean almost exclusively people with advanced degrees, generally doctorates, in mathematics education, an academic field focused on research on math teaching and learning, as well as upon teacher education. And I seriously doubt that it’s those folks who are centrally responsible for the problem you mention.

You need to look at who tends to hold major sway these days (since the late 1990s) in many states and on a national basis regarding state curriculum standards. It isn’t for the most part mathematics educators, though occasionally they get to have some say. Look, for example, at the Presidential National Math Panel. Exactly how many “mathematics educators” were on it? I count three. Liping Ma, Deborah Ball, and Skip Fennell. The rest were mathematicians, cognitive psychologists, one middle school math teacher with a long track record of hostility to what we can loosely call “reform mathematics education,” and a bunch of other folks whose presence on such a panel would be puzzling were it not one called under the watch of George W. Bush, not exactly known for giving much of a damn about actual educational or scientific expertise (see THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE for starters). The folks who undid two decades of reform work in California were, to a man (and I use that word advisedly) mathematicians who got in through a political back door to substitute their own state standards for the ones the legitimately appointed panel had submitted (see The Politics of California School Mathematics: The Anti-Reform of 1997-99 by Jerry P. Becker and Bill Jacob).

You then go on to talk about tests as if the folks promoting them are, once again, math educators rather than a narrow band of anti-reformers who are virtually never math ed researchers or teacher educators, but rather politically-motivated activists, some with little or no established knowledge of mathematics or its applications (but VERY loud voices), some mathematicians with a conservative educational viewpoint, and all of them openly dismissive of “mathematics education” and “mathematics educators.”

You really seem in this entry to be terribly confused about whom is to blame for the reduction mathematics teaching and learning to many things that have very little to do with what mathematics as a living field, as an activity, as a “doing” are about. It’s not mathematics educators.

Of course, many of the points you make about curriculum, assessment, etc., are a function of a system that is not really very much in the control of the folks you are inadvertently or purposely attacking here. The education “industry” is another loaded term that seems to get used to mean different things to different folks. There are of course people in education because it’s a job, a way to make a living (however limited) with what they may find minimal risk or effort. There are increasingly people in it as an explicit business (see, for example, major publishers, obviously, but less obviously perhaps those companies run by folks with no interest or training in education who are coming in through the charter and voucher routes to grab up as many education dollars as they can, often without even a passing glance at kids as any more than the income they represent. I speak from bitter personal experience in this regard, having worked for and with enough of these companies at the bottom rung (know vaguely as “teacher”), but with eyes open to the corporate memos that speak of the “business we’re in,” focusing upon enrollments and count days, but with never a mention of curriculum or, heaven forfend, learning or what students are actually getting from being at their schools. It’s uglier than you can imagine unless you’ve looked at such management companies with real scrutiny, and from the outside it’s damned hard to get access to what they’re up to. (Of course, I can provide quotations from REAL corporate memos to back my assertions).

Many on-the-job math teachers and mathematics researchers and teacher educators are not of this ilk. They’re hard-working people with a passion for mathematics and for kids. They actually interested in seeing kids become effective with and excited about math and its applications, beauty, and power. And they are trying to find math curricula (read “books, lessons, materials, tools”) that are effective in engaging and educating kids. They’re also interested in teaching: how to better get key aspects, concepts, techniques, procedures, applications, implications, and pleasures of mathematics across to kids.

Your penultimate paragraph talks about questions. And of course that’s a huge part of what math and education are about. But questions in math and in math class are pedagogical issues, not purely mathematical ones. They’re the stuff many math educators but too few mathematicians and virtually no business people or politicians are concerned with in this thing we’re all fighting about. You have identified some of the problems, but your loose language and lack of focus once again appears to be pinning blame on the wrong donkeys more often than not.

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