Asking the right questions

If you read about math and enjoy the internet, chances are you saw this op-ed in the New York Times over the weekend. The piece, titled “Is Algebra Necessary?,” argues that math requirements, algebra in particular, are prohibitively difficult for many people, and may be contributing to high school and college dropout rates. Instead of imposing an algebra restriction, author Andrew Hacker suggests restructuring the curriculum around “citizen statistics” and “quantitative reasoning.” Despite the jargon-y names, he insists courses like this could be developed without sacrificing rigor or dumbing down the curriculum.

As might be expected, the piece has furrowed quite a few brows. A few friends have asked me for my opinion, but I’m a little late to the game, and there are a number of people who have expressed my views in their own words quite well. I’ll briefly add my own to cents, peppered with links throughout.

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Pi, I Shake My Fist at You

A couple of days ago I watched a video that really depressed me. Here‘s a link to a local news story from Ankeny, Iowa – I’d encourage you to take a look at the news clip there (unfortunately, I can’t embed it here). The story concerns a 6th grade student who has memorized the decimal expansion of pi to 340 or so digits.

In and of itself, this might not seem like a particularly newsworthy achievement – as any Pi Day aficionado can tell you, there are people who have memorized more digits. Perhaps what makes it newsworthy is the fact that the student is only twelve years old, or, more perversely, the fact that his accomplishment came in response to the challenge of his math teacher, who asked his students to memorize as many digits of pi as possible. By far the most depressing part of the video is . . . → Read More: Pi, I Shake My Fist at You

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A Sufficient Mathematical Background

A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post ran an op-ed written by G. V. Ramanathan, emeritus Professor in mathematics, statistics, and computer science, entitled “How much math do we really need?” As the title suggests, Ramanathan uses his space in the paper to argue against the grain of conventional wisdom when it comes to mathematics education; his point is that American students are actually receiving too MUCH math, rather than not enough. It’s an appealing thesis, especially for those looking for an excuse to embrace their own math phobia, but ultimately I find it to be less than responsible.

Consider, for example, the following passage:

How much math do you really need in everyday life? Ask yourself that — and also the next 10 people you meet, say, your plumber, your lawyer, your grocer, your mechanic, your physician or even a math teacher.

Unlike literature, history, politics and music, . . . → Read More: A Sufficient Mathematical Background

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Race to Where?

Late last month there was apparently a bit of a ruckus over whether or not California should adopt new national education standards as part of a competition among the states dubbed “Race to the Top.”

Although Race to the Top (the brain child of education secretary Arne Duncan) hasn’t received much media attention, it was one of the many byproducts of last year’s economic stimulus act. Recently, though, it’s been the subject of more discussion – a relatively detailed article on the program was published over the weekend, for example.

For Californians (and residents of other states, I’m sure), participation in Race to the Top has been met with some controversy. The latest debate, as I mentioned above, has been about education standards. Race to the Top comes with its own set of national education standards, and adopting those standards helps a state’s odds of winning some federal education funding. . . . → Read More: Race to Where?

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Patient Problem Solving

Last year, I remarked on a TED talk from mathemagician Arthur Benjamin, who argued for the displacement of Calculus by Statistics in the hierarchy of high school mathematics. This year, TED has sponsored a talk by high school math teacher Dan Meyer, who discusses what, in his view, are the major problems with the way mathematics is currently taught to kids, and what can be done to fix things.

His opening is spot on: “I teach high school math. I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it, but is forced by law to buy it.” He goes on to argue that the problem with math education, a problem exacerbated by most textbooks, is that it discourages what he terms patient problem solving. Problems in textbooks rarely reflect the types of problems one encounters in real life: textbook problems usually supply you with just . . . → Read More: Patient Problem Solving

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Gender Gap Genesis

Late last year, a study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which tried to pin down origins for the gender gap in mathematics education. As I’ve discussed before, the gender gap in math education is shrinking, and has been shown to be less about biology and more about culture – in cultures where gender equality is weaker, the gender gap is stronger. Nevertheless, even in American culture, the gender gap still persists, and this study by Sian Beilock and others has tried to figure out how, if the gender gap is culturally based, it comes about in young students. The original study can be found here, while a discussion of the study that was featured in the news can be found here.

Professor Beilock and her colleagues tried to correlate young students’ math anxiety with the math anxiety of their teachers. In particular, they looked . . . → Read More: Gender Gap Genesis

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Reforming Education through Geek Chic

Earlier this month, Wired published an article written by Daniel Roth, enticingly titled “Making Geeks Cool Could Reform Education.” It serves as an interesting counterpoint to the commonly used argument that the best way to reform education is to better integrate it with the most current technology, so that going to school feels less like going to school and more like playing video games (family friendly ones, of course).

Sorry, Typing of the Dead, but you're a little too creepy.

The essay in Wired takes a slightly different approach – it profiles schools that have successfully channeled the inner geeks of their students, the argument being that the geek subculture rewards intelligence with popularity. To do this, schools must make learning seem cool. This is a feat which is easier said than done, because, as we all know, there’s no better way to convince a teenager that something . . . → Read More: Reforming Education through Geek Chic

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Make Money Money, Make Money Money Money! (and Learn Math, too)

Let me begin by saying that, in response to the question Why is 9/09/09 so special?, my response is simple: it’s not.

In fact, I would argue that 09/08/09 is much more interesting. This claim has nothing to do with numerology, and everything to do with President Obama’s speech to the youth of America on the value of education. The speech made very clear the importance of taking education seriously, and hopefully convinced students that a good education benefits not only themselves, but also society at large. In case you missed the speech, the transcript can be found here.

Although the speech was about education in general, mathematics got a little bit of love too. Here’s one such example:

What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation . . . → Read More: Make Money Money, Make Money Money Money! (and Learn Math, too)

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