Why Do Americans Stink at Math? – an NYTimes Article

In school, did you “learn” mathematics by just memorizing some facts and not really understanding where those facts arose? Karen Morgan Ivy Tweeted the below Calvin and Hobbes comic.

(Transcription below by http://blog.onbeing.org/post/250746172/calvin-and-hobbes-math-is-a-religion)

First frame
Calvin: You know, I don’t think math is a science. I think it’s a religion.
Hobbes: A religion?
Second frame
Calvin: Yeah. All these equations are like miracles. You take two numbers and when you add them, they magically become one new number! No one can say how it happens. You either believe it or you don’t.
Third frame
Calvin: This whole book is full of things that have to be accepted on faith! It’s a religion!
Fourth frame
Hobbes: And in the public schools no less. Call a lawyer.
Calvin: As a math atheist, I should be excused from this.

Related to this, I recently saw a link on my Facebook page to an article on NYTimes.com by Elizabeth Green entitled Why Do Americans Stink at Math? The article discusses a Japanese teacher who has tried revolutionizing mathematics pedagogy.

Instead of having students memorize and then practice endless lists of equations — which Takahashi remembered from his own days in school — Matsuyama taught his college students to encourage passionate discussions among children so they would come to uncover math’s procedures, properties and proofs for themselves.

The article also talks about how the American mathematics teaching practices have seen several failed reform attempts in the past.

It wasn’t the first time that Americans had dreamed up a better way to teach math and then failed to implement it. The same pattern played out in the 1960s, when schools gripped by a post-Sputnik inferiority complex unveiled an ambitious “new math,” only to find, a few years later, that nothing actually changed. In fact, efforts to introduce a better way of teaching math stretch back to the 1800s. The story is the same every time: a big, excited push, followed by mass confusion and then a return to conventional practices.

How can we, as mathematicians, work to ensure new reform (we are in the midst of the Common Core) actually works?

About Tyler Clark

I am a second year doctoral student in mathematics at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, FL. I obtained my MS from WKU in Bowling Green, KY where I researched continued radicals and Cantor sets.
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One Response to Why Do Americans Stink at Math? – an NYTimes Article

  1. Kaisa Taipale says:

    I don’t know if we can ensure that reform works. I’m getting cynical, I guess.

    I’ll ask another question, one that seems a bit more do-able to me. How can we, as mathematicians, support K-12 math teachers in their professional development and in deepening their mathematical understanding? I personally like the Common Core standards — that doesn’t mean I like the Common Core-rebranded curricular crap being put out by the major publishers — but the Core doesn’t matter if teachers don’t get the time and training to figure out how to use it.

    While higher ed is undergoing its own crises, I think K-12 teachers are being treated terribly. There’s a lot of political rhetoric going around designed, in part, so we won’t respect them or support them. The part of the article you’re discussing that hit me hardest was that American teachers spend 1100 hours/year teaching, while Japanese teachers spend 600 hours/year on teaching and the rest on professional development. If we could support our K-12 colleagues in getting some of that professional development time and help some of that be about joyful, interesting, and rigorous math, I think that would help a lot!

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