Friday, February 20, 2009

Are "Both Sides" in the Math Wars Dogmatic Absolutists?

In response to one of Wayne Bishop's usual assaults on someone who deigns to write or speak positively about progressive mathematics education, Bill Marsh wrote, in part:

Wayne follows Wu by starting with one way of doing something, then dogmatically claiming and perhaps believing that it is the only way. This happens on both sides of the math wars, usually in the weaker form of merely claiming there is only one best way.

I wrote back to Bill, a mathematician with whom I generally agree about educational issues:

I wonder what you mean when you say "This happens on both sides of the math wars." Assuming that the antecedent of "this" is "claiming and perhaps believing that it is the only way," I would suggest that I've yet to see someone on MY side of the Math Wars debates take the view that there is only one way to do or think about anything, particularly when it comes to teaching and learning mathematics.

The anti-progressive side has been pulling a cute trick for a long time by citing a couple of types of things that make it appear that those they oppose are just as outlandishly rigid as they are themselves. One sort of evidence is teachers who are not involved at all in the sorts of debates that arise here and in similar places, but rather are rank-and-file folks who have "caught the reform bug," so to speak, but haven't given it a lot of thought. They may have caught it because their district mandated a particular curriculum, or because of a conference session, or from a colleague, and suddenly they are True Believers in the worst sense. They become just as rigid and unreflective about their latest religion as they are about every previous one and as they will be about the next one. Such folks are not, on my view, progressive teachers, and their lack of reflection and insistence that they've found some new panacea (be it manipulatives, problem-solving curricula, technology, games, a particular math textbook or series, small-group work, project-based learning, or anything else) makes them simply folks who will likely jump on many more bandwagons with just as little thought and understanding. They are not really any different from unreflective teachers who glom onto Saxon Math, programmed instruction (back when that was the fad), or a host of other things that don't happen to be part of the progressive/reform menu. Approached with little or no thought or reflection, such things aren't answers either, but of course a True Believer always thinks s/he has found magic, not realizing that magic doesn't exist (at least not of that sort).

Another major sort of evidence anti-progressive ideologues have used is to find little snippets of things people associated with reform say that they can build into ultimate proof that the REAL progressive reform agenda is racist, fuzzy, watered-down, inferior, extremist, and so forth. A classic example is what was culled from a radio interview given in 1996 by the then-president of NCTM, Jack Price. Wayne and his Mathematically Correct/HOLD friends have come back to that little bit of decontextualized spoken prose as damning evidence of patronizing racist and sexist attitudes not only on the part of Jack Price, but the entirety of all progressive reformers. While this is hardly the only example of such things, it serves as the archetypical one to my mind.

A third example, somewhat similar to the second, is taking lines from articles by progressive reformers that are clearly intended to shock people out of their complacency about mathematics education and, again, use them to attack EVERY progressive reformer and progressive idea. Two cases in point are Tony Ralston's piece, "Let's Abolish Paper and Pencil Arithmetic," suggesting the seemingly radical idea in the title (his very sensible call in the same article for increased emphasis on teaching estimation skills and mental arithmetic is conveniently ignored by the critics, of course), and Steve Leinwand's 1994 piece in EDUCATION WEEK, "It's Time To Abandon Computational Algorithms." A fair reading of the article makes clear exactly what Leinwand proposes, but it's more effective rhetorically for critics to cite the eye-catching opening paragraph rather that the reasoned argument that follows, especially when in the third paragraph Leinwand makes crystal clear that he isn't calling for an end to teaching basic computation skills, but rather asking that we take a much-needed critical look at WHICH computation skills we teach and what alternatives exist for kids who don't necessarily "get it" as quickly as conventional wisdom says that they "should" (always a word that is popular with the MC/HOLD folks and others who wish to trash progressive reform notions).

While the above three sorts of maneuvers hardly exhausts the list of what anti-progressive reform attackers are very wont to do, they are the ones most immediately relevant to the question of whether Bill's comment above, if I've gotten its intent right (and it's quite possible that I haven't), applies equally well to "both" sides (of course I think there are many more than two such sides) in the Math Wars. And in my experience, it's simply not the case in any meaningful way that progressive reform theorists, advocates, and reflective practitioners are guilty of the sorts of dogmatic absolutism that so thoroughly characterizes the views of their vehement critics and opponents as seen on the websites of Mathematically Correct and NYC-HOLD.

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