Tuesday’s Links: Math Wars part 2

Math Wars Continued: “You Cannot Memorize Meaningless Gibberish!”

I promised I would discuss some of the responses to M.J. McDermott’s traditionalist video “Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth” (see Monday’s Links).

My favorite response is by a professor of mathematics at Berea College, James Blackburn-Lynch. Part One of his video response is about 8 minutes long; please watch it now:

Different assumptions

Ms. McDermott begins her video with an assumption: The purpose of elementary math education is for all children to be able to multiply and divide using the standard algorithms by the end of 5th grade. This is the traditionalist point of view: basic skills are to be mastered, through rote memorization and repetition (practice).

If you read my Research Plan, Ms. McDermott represents the Tabula Rasa philosophy of education: fill ’em (with knowledge) and drill ’em (on skills). Not necessarily a bad approach, but we should note that it is just one approach among many, and just one camp in the Math Wars.

If you watched today’s video, you saw James Lynch question Ms. McDermott’s assumption. “Why? What is the big picture here?” he asks.

He says Ms. McDermott and many parents “want math to be what it was for themmemorization of formulas.” So when their child comes home with a cluster problem or an assignment to use the lattice method of multiplication, they balk.

But what is the purpose of those types of assignments? Mr. Lynch suggests it is to make meaning of math.

Different Diagnoses

Ms. McDermott says the fundamental problem with math education today is that students don’t master the basic skills anymore. The solution? More drill and practice.

Mr. Lynch says spending so much time on drill and practice was itself the problem! Students learned to think of math as “a bunch of arbitary rules,” without making meaning of it for themselves.

See why this is a War? Each camp’s solution is precisely the problem, for the other camp.

I give a thumbs-up to Mr. Lynch’s video, for pointing out the shortcomings of Ms. McDermott’s position.

As my other website for today, I recommend the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Curriculum Focal Points website.

The NCTM is probably the best, most organized voice in the Constructivist camp of the Math Wars. This camp believes, with Mr. Lynch, that “you cannot memorize meaningless gibberish,” and that, to best make sense of math, you may need to take a round-about route that involves things like cluster problems and strange algorithms.

I give the NCTM a thumbs-up for its easily navigable, grade-by-grade listing of curriculum points.

I give it a thumbs-down for requiring that you become a paid member before you can interact with the website — i.e., leave comments, ask questions, etc.

3 Responses to Tuesday’s Links: Math Wars part 2

  1. Matt says:

    I personally side ideologically with the ‘you can’t teach gibberish’ camp, but I’d rather the entire school system change so drastically that neither camp’s position is any longer meaningful. The only time I’ve ever really learned anything was when I had some real task to accomplish that was meaningful to me, and some knowledge or theory was necessary for the completion of the task. I learned QBasic (a computer programming language) front and back when I was in the 6th grade, absolutely on my own, because I wanted to program video games. That’s actually how I learned to type – As a necessary precondition for something else that I wanted to do on my own. I hadn’t benefited at all from the typing classes I’d taken before then.

    The best thing a teacher who wanted me to learn multiplication could have done would have been to tell me about some really cool task that, oh by the way, you have to learn multiplication to be able to do, and then to have sat back and not bothered me. I think that this is what all good teachers who are not tyrants do.

  2. Jared says:

    Go Matt! I like that approach to learning, too.
    I think it’s called “apprenticeship.”
    It avoids that unnatural segregation of learning & work
    America has put on its children–
    “do all your learning at the beginning of life,
    then go be productive in the working world until you’re 65.”
    I didn’t learn so much from school because I lacked discipline;
    I learn discipline from work.

    Getting a job after college
    prepared me better for all the school I’d already gone to.

  3. Freya says:

    Hey Bobby,

    I totally agree with Matt, and I suggest that you consider that regardless of how adults want to teach children, children (unless naturally inclined towards math) aren’t likely to learn math (or anything else, for that matter), unless t hey need to–and they feel that need. Fit THAT into a curriculum:).

    I enjoy that you are pursuing this question from two opposing sides, rather than piecing like thousands of strands of information together.
    Also, I’m more interested in the argument at hand rather than how the argument is being presented: it’s unfortunate if one party is demonizing the other, but not vital to your argument to say so.

    Way to go, Bobby!

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