Sunday, October 18, 2009

Math education in the news

Today, The Ottawa Citizen ran two stories about Mathematics and Math education. One story talks about fear of math and the other story talks about how much math people actually need. Reading the stories in the Citizen got me to another link "You will never use this Math again".

These stories are interesting to me since Math is what I used to teach and is also where I get most of my supply teaching work.

The "You will never use..." story is interesting in that it asks some valid questions about just how useful is our math teaching program? I was pleased to note that of the less useful topics referred to in the story, imaginary numbers and conic sections are no longer on the Ontario high school curriculum and rational functions is part of the optional Advanced Functions Grade 12 course. It is completely possible to graduate from high school, and even to get a grade 12 math credit (Math of Data Management) without being forced to learn any of those abstract subjects.

One point that Citizen's stories make is that in the past high schools and universities have often used mathematics results for the purposes of screening students, deciding who gets into what program. But Bill Byers, a retired math professor makes the point "...unless we can assure that the teaching of mathematics is really top rate, then what's the point of using mathematics to screen students?" This point becomes particularly troublesome when you think about Byers anecdote of the PhD female biologist who said that she could not do math. I have to agree with Byers' assessment. Of course she can do math! Someone, or several someones over the years, have brainwashed her. How many other students are we brainwashing?

"Now consider the fact that the vast majority of elementary school teachers are women, many of them raised before the math enlightenment. " from the fear article.

"The teachers who teach math should be trained in the teaching of math. If it turns out that the people teaching math hated math as students, then you are only adding to the problem." (Byers says)

People are already too prone to think that they are flat out good or bad at things, and that those strengths and weaknesses cannot be modified. Worse, people assume that if they are weak at something, they should just avoid it, instead of working harder. Our education system, and the teachers in it need to work extra hard to not reinforce those harmful beliefs. We need to teach all students that they can learn any subject, and that difficulty in a subject requires more work, not avoidance.

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