Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What's Wrong with High School Math

I am an occasional contributor to the local weekly "The Jewish Post", and last year Bernie (the editor) published an article I wrote about high school math. Usually he reposts my articles on his website, but I noticed that this one doesn't appear. So I thought I'd put it up on my blog. I think it's a pretty good article.

What's Wrong with High School Math

I used to be the math guy on Channel 11. It was twenty years ago, and community access TV was a platform for kooks of all stripes to do their thing in front of a TV audience, and my “thing” was math. I started my show because I didn’t like the way math was taught in university, and I thought I could show by example that there was a better way to do things. Instead of teaching math as a set of rules to be followed in order to get correct answers, I wanted to show math as a way of looking at the world so that things made sense. In its three years on the air, my show had at least some success in that my presentations seemed to resonate with quite a few viewers, and not only for their quirkiness; on the other hand, I’m quite sure I had zero impact on the way math was taught in university.

Last year I went back to university to certify as a high school teacher. I didn’t last long: after repeatedly arguing with my professors, I was unceremoniously drummed out of the program after only ten weeks. But in that short time, I was appalled by what I saw going on in the schools. I know there has been a lot of public debate recently over “back to the basics” and the lack of basic literacy in math, but my issues with the system are a little different. This is article is about what I saw.

I am not so much interested in the nuts-and-bolts problem of instilling skills of manipulation in very young children. I am more concerned about what I might call the spiritual consequences of the way math is taught in the senior years.  To understand what I mean, let’s look at the reasons why math is supposedly important:

1. It teaches you how to think.
2. It provides important skills needed in everyday life.
3. “In today’s high-tech global economy”…well, you know the rest.

I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say these are bad reasons to teach math in high school. Let’s put aside for the moment the 5% of graduates who will go on to careers in the technical fields: not because I am willing to concede that they are well-served by the present system, but because the problem of high-tech education is too vast to deal with in this short article. I want to talk now about the 95% of students who won’t  become engineers or scientists. Why do they need to learn how to factor polynomials? Is it worth the cost in human suffering? Because surely only the scourge of acne can rival math as a cause of suffering among teenagers. How do we justify it?

We routinely justify it by reciting the three reasons listed above, but I find them very hard to take seriously. Does anyone seriously believe that mathematical reasoning is of any use in working out solutions to the ordinary problems of daily life: relationships, jobs, happiness or whatever? Even such iconic problems as rent-vs-buy, or how fast to pay down your mortgage…those are lifestyle choices that people will inevitably make for reasons that have very little to do with the the textbook “present-value” calculations that they may be taught in school. No, there is a fourth reason why we teach math, an unspoken reason:

4. We teach math because when we were young, we suffered through it: then, as we grew older, we validated that suffering by convincing ourselves in retrospect that it was “good for us”. And if it was good for us, it will be good for our children.

The pervasiveness of this attitude explains everything that is wrong with math teaching in high school. It explains why you’re not supposed to enjoy math, and it explains why it is alright to forget everything you learned the day after the final exam.

Mostly, it explains why you need to memorize algorithms to get the right answer even if you don’t know what you’re doing. Because the big, soul-crushing lesson students learn from high school math is that you will only succede if you follow directions. If you try to think for yourself, to ask why you need to do what you’ve been told, you will surely fail. 

Yes, high school math does teach you how to think. That’s what scares the s*** out of me.

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