Where Do We Fail In Math Education?

The other day while looking at my MET course discussion forums I came across a post that made my blood boil. The topic being discussed was LOGO, and how Papert partially designed the language as a tool for constructivist learning of math for children. One of my classmates said they didn’t understand much about LOGO because she “wasn’t a math person.”

My jaw dropped, blood ran to my head (or away from head?) and I couldn’t see straight for about a minute.

One context for LOGO is that it deals with primary level mathematical thinking. Perhaps this is difficult for a seven year old but it should not be all that complicated for an adult who is admitted into a masters program. Unfortunately I think my classmate is not that unusual in this respect. It wasn’t uncommon for me to hear the same lament of not being a “math person” while I did my B.Ed.

To me, this is the basis for continuing problems in math education. If a child’s parents and teachers aren’t “math people,” what is the chance that the child will be? Not very likely, in my opinion. We can wrap all the pedagogy in the world into math education but until we step away from this self-fulfilling prophecy of not being good at math, we will always have a struggle on our hands. I think this may be part of the success of the JUMP math program, where a procedure is set out and followed that doesn’t allow the prophecy of not being good at math to ferment. Why are so many people “not math people”? In general I believe that it is because math is not valued enough in our society.

My MET classmate gave a reason for her dislike or despair with math: she was never offered reasons why they were learning what they were learning, and what it would be used for. I think this hits upon a very difficult aspect of math. When, exactly, will students need to graph parabolas, solve trigometric equations or calculate the perimeter of a polygon? I can offer discrete examples of when singular procedures can be used in real life but it’s not easy. I think the more general answer is that as a society, we want our citizens to have proficient numeracy skills. Try telling that to an eight or a sixteen year old though.

One solution to the above problem has been the movement to make math more “real life”. Some mechanisms do a fairly terrible job of this, such as textbooks and their pseudo real life example problems. For example, have you ever asked a 14 year old to calculate how many mp3 and flac files can fit on their 2gb iPod using equivalent ratios? They’ll look at you like you’re insane and tell you that they just add songs until it’s full. That, my dear curriculum designers, is real life. Other attempts to make math real can be seen in Dan Meyers work, or perhaps in Problem Based Learning such as my Greenmath project. These methods of inquiry are not obvious though, and certainly don’t cover a large portion of the curriculum.

What’s the solution then? I really don’t know but I don’t think math education is specifically at fault. I have hopes that as we adopt 21st Century Learning in significant ways (not by just designing a new textbook), we will start to see positive gains. Shifts in society and our families will also aid with math education. Our true potential will be realized when learning is approached in a broad sense, along with trying to instill a sense of value in math that isn’t based on obvious and visible outcomes.

One thought I’ve been playing with is the idea of getting rid of senior math for students that don’t want it, and replacing it with a course in logic and critical thinking. For many kids, they really don’t need to know about trigonometry or hyperbolas to have a successful life - my MET classmate is proof of this. I think it would be great if kids could replace Math 11 with some type of PBL course that taught and examined real world issues that affect us in significant way every day, as seen through logic and critical thinking.