The struggle to understand why we teach K-12 mathematics in the order we do, and the content we do is real. I have wondered about this for a long time, and really have never found a good answer.
I threw out the idea of teaching y=mx+b as the only way to write lines (even though the district materials at the time said it was all we needed). I took a lot of heat for that decision from some people. I was told I was completely wrong; by teachers. I stuck to my guns because y=mx+b is a stupid way to teach lines. And in the end, I was told by other teachers that I influenced them to change too.
But really, K-12 mathematics education is nothing like this:
Think of Lockhart’s Lament. You read Paul’s words, and you are hit by the poetry he sees in math. It is also 25 pages long. I read somewhere that Lockhart’s Lament is the the most powerful and often cited mathematics education document that is never acted upon. What does that say about us, as educators, who cite it?
Lockhart is passionate about math education, and he feels that the current state (in 2002) of math education is in trouble. His words may be as apt today as it was then. On page 2 he writes,
In fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.
How much impact has Lockhart had on mathematics education? Often cited, rarely used or implemented. And yet, my Twitter feed and Facebook still have things like this pop up regularly.
What beautiful words representing fantastic ideals. Are you starting to see the cognitive dissonance I am feeling today? Too bad none of these ideals are found in our textbooks or our standards (and don’t get me wrong, I am not hating on the CCSS-M here). In fact, much of school mathematics is exactly how Seymour Papert described it here.
It is mindless, repetitive, and dissociated.
So as I was thinking of the question of “Why?”, I stumbled upon this article. Why We Learn Math Lessons That Date Back 500 Years? on NPR. To find out the answer is pretty much, “Because we always have,” is sad, disappointing and frustrating. We have taught it this way for the last 500 years, so we will continue to teach it this way for the foreseeable future.
I call B.S.
Seriously. We need to rethink how we teach math in a substantive manner.
We are part of a system that is not allowing learners to find the joy of mathematics, but the drudgery of mathematics and of learning. And this is not new. Not by any means. Edward Cubberly, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education around 1900) said,
Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.
The fact that the specifications of education haven’t changed in hundreds of years is a problem (see the NPR article). It may even be THE problem. I am not so confident to claim that for sure, but it is definitely A problem.
At what point do we, as teacher leaders, rise up and demand this change. We see the damage. We see the issues. We must start demanding the curriculum be changed to meet the needs of our learners. I am not sure that the CCSS-M is that change. It seems like it is codifying the 500 year old problems that we are currently doing.
But it doesn’t not have to.
The Modeling Standard is gold. It is also 1 single page in the entire document.
I will just end this rant with that thought. Oh, and this thought. No more broccoli flavored ice cream.