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Read a Mathematician’s Lament

I recently had the pleasure of stumbling across Paul Lockhart’s essay, A Mathematician’s Lament. Lockhart, a former research mathematician in analytic number theory who received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1990, decided to leave academia in 2000 in order to concentrate on K-12 math education, which he hass been doing at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn.

Lockhart’s article lambasts the current state of mathematics education in this country. Some of his main points are the following: Mathematics is an art form, but unlike other art forms like music or painting, is not understood as such by the general population. As a result, students are not exposed to the beauty of mathematics, and are instead taught through drill and memorization, which effectively kills any natural curiosity the student may have. The most important part of mathematics lies not in the facts or theorems that students memorize, but in the arguments that . . . → Read More: Read a Mathematician’s Lament

Restructuring the Math Pyramid?

A friend recently shared with me the following video from TED (see below). In it, mathematician (or, in this case, mathemagician) Arthur Benjamin gives a brief argument for eliminating calculus as the top of the “mathematical pyramid” in high school education, and replacing it probability and statistics. The main reason for this shift is that unless you are planning to have a career in a technical field, it’s unlikely you’ll find a use for calculus in your everyday life, but an understanding of statistics can benefit you no matter what you do. For example, it can help you to build an intuition about day to day decision making when risk and uncertainty are involved. Here’s the video (it’s short, only a couple of minutes):

A noble goal, to be sure, and it’s certainly a solution that wouldn’t cost a whole lot. There is an argument to be made for such . . . → Read More: Restructuring the Math Pyramid?

Commodify your Mathematics?

Here’s an interesting article about Tom Farber, a high school Calculus teacher from San Diego who is fighting tough economic times and cutbacks in education spending in a rather novel way – he’s selling ad space on math tests.

The goal here certainly doesn’t seem to be the development of a second income. Many teachers report having to spend money out of their own pockets for school supplies – in this case, Mr. Farber is using the money to help cover the copying costs associated with making tests and practice exams to help students prepare for the APs. His intentions certainly seem benevolent, but are his actions as innocent?

It seems like the advertising is fairly non-intrusive. There are no graphics, and the ads run on the bottom of the page. The fact that a good chunk of the ad space was bought by parents who wanted to run . . . → Read More: Commodify your Mathematics?

Math in the News: Maybe the Sky Isn’t Falling, After All

Even though we’d like to accuse our math teachers of being more or less incompetent, there is at least one indication that math education in this country is making some progress. In particular, the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study shows American students have gained 11 points over their average performance in 1995. A comparison of US scores, along with an article describing the findings, can be read here.

With an international average of 500, American 4th and 8th grade students scored a respectable 529, on par with the Netherlands, Lithuania, Germany, and Denmark. As might be expected, however, we’ve still got a significant way to go when it comes to competing with other countries. Hong Kong made the top of the list, with a score of 607.

Of course, this data by itself doesn’t do much to explain what factors may be driving our improvement. . . . → Read More: Math in the News: Maybe the Sky Isn’t Falling, After All

Math in the News: Are Math Teachers Really Only One Chapter Ahead?

It looks like middle school math teachers can’t catch a break. According to a recent study, a significant percentage of math teachers in grades 5-8 do not have a degree or a certification in math. Sadly, the numbers are even worse for schools in low income areas. While it’s certainly true that you don’t need a math degree to teach middle school math effectively, the data does suggest that there is a significant bloc of underqualified math teachers trying to impart essential knowledge to these young students.

Of course, I doubt this is all the teachers’ fault – elementary and middle school teachers are a rare commodity in this country, and kids need someone to teach them math. An understaffed school will do what it takes to make sure there’s somebody at the front of the classroom. And I certainly don’t envy those teachers out there who may not feel . . . → Read More: Math in the News: Are Math Teachers Really Only One Chapter Ahead?

Math in the News: Is U.S. Culture Crushing Potential Mathletes?

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran an article about the dearth of U.S. students with strong skills in mathematics. While this is not quite a revelation, it is made more timely by the recent release of a study that looked at data from Putnam exams, International Mathematical Olympiads, and data from other programs meant to nurture younger students in mathematics.

This type of data is more powerful than looking at SAT scores, for instance, because exams administered in a mathematics competition are notoriously difficult. There are thousands of students who will score an 800 on the math section of the SAT, and so this test offers no way to distinguish between them. Looking at this other data, however, allows us to gain a much deeper insight into the abilities of students in the U.S. with an aptitude for mathematics.

The data suggests a couple of things. First, contrary . . . → Read More: Math in the News: Is U.S. Culture Crushing Potential Mathletes?

Math in the News: Math is Cool, I Swear!

As you may recall, my first post briefly discussed the California Board of Education’s mandate that every 8th grader in the state must take Algebra. My purpose here is not to discuss the ruling further, but rather to point out the response article published last month in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The article is well-researched and thoroughly written. Not only does it feature discussion of the pros and cons of such a mandate from a wide range of interviewees, but it also tries to address the question of why Algebra, and mathematics in general, is perceived so terribly by American kids and adults alike. It also attempts to paint a picture of what Algebra actually is, for those of us who fell by the wayside of mathematics long ago.

The current state of mathematics education is given quite a scathing review by the people mentioned in the article who actually . . . → Read More: Math in the News: Math is Cool, I Swear!

Math in the News: The Gender Gap is Closed for Business

Math made the headlines last Thursday, with an article about a recent study in the journal Science, which discredits the perceived Gender Gap in mathematics. The AP article can be found here – if you can’t bring yourself to read the article, you can also watch the following clip from NBC Nightly News on the same topic.

The AP article offers a more thorough discussion of the study, which examined standardized test scores for more than 7 million American students. Given the breadth of the study, one hopes it will help dispel any lingering notion girls may have that they are some how innately unable to measure up to boys in math. We do, however, have a ways to go before math professor Barbie starts flying off the shelves.

Any news that can help persuade women to enter mathematically demanding fields is good news. Not only because America needs to . . . → Read More: Math in the News: The Gender Gap is Closed for Business