Monday, November 20, 2006

The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO - Edgar Simpson: Changing how we teach math

The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO - Edgar Simpson: Changing how we teach math

Mr Simpson has been drinking from the educrat Kool-Aid. Some background.

What Lankford, now in his eighth year as superintendent of Webb City Schools, did instinctively has become a focal debate in public education. There is an ongoing shift from teaching math by rote, as in mesmerizing tables and formulas, to trying to impart concepts.

This change, controversial and by no means settled, spilled over into tears from an educator during an emotion-filled meeting last week in Seneca. The district introduced a reformed math program into its elementary schools in 2003.

The issue goes by a variety of names, "reform math," "Chicago Math," "Fuzzy Math" and its commercial moniker, "Everyday Math." The concept was conceived and developed in the early 1980s by a team of academics at the University of Chicago and is now peddled by a division of McGraw-Hill.

Mr. Simpson though not explicitly stating so, obviously is pulling for the so called "reform math". He goes to offer this argument.

When Chicago University researchers dug into the problem, they concluded the fundamental issue was the way students were being taught - by memorizing facts and formulas, rather than being forced to understand and apply concepts. The difference is an auto mechanic knowing how to change the spark plugs in an engine, and knowing what the spark plugs do and what happens when they don't work.
Lets take a moment to think about this. How many people out there would take your car to a mechanic who doesn't know how to change spark clubs. I don't care how much he can spout off about the theory of internal combustion engines, if he can't turn a wrench then I am taking my car elsewhere.

The other problem with this analogy is that the purpose of math instruction in school, is not to teach students to be theoretical mathematicians, but to be mathematically literate. A more apt comparison, using the spark plug analogy above, is that we are teaching our students to be competent car owners that can perform routine maintenance of their car. What we as car operators need to know is how to change tires if we have a flat, change spark plugs and oil during routine intervals, and know when to take the car into a professional.

At the end Mr. Simpson says:

She notes that the way public education had been teaching mathematics was not keeping Seneca, Missouri or the nation competitive with the rest of the world. Doing nothing is not an option.

She's right. The core reason we want to be competitive, and we should not try to pretend it is anything else, is jobs. Many employers, primarily manufacturing and technology, say some workers coming to them from public high schools and even colleges are not good at math. They know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide, but not how to think on the fly, to solve problems that require visualizing a logical sequence and then making changes to achieve the desired end.
Once again, Mr. Simpson is missing the point. It does no good to be able to "think on the fly" if you can't perform the basic math operations. California learned its lessons the hard way, but it looks like Seneca is going to have to repeat the same mistakes all over again.