Tuesday’s Links: Math Wars part 2

October 2, 2008

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.


Monday’s Links: Math Wars part 1!

October 2, 2008

Day 1 Website Review: Math Wars and Singapore Math

I apologize for getting this up late in the week. I actually did the legwork for this on Monday, but have been unable to get around to posting until today.

Today’s exploration takes us into the red-hot battleground of Math Wars. Venturing onto YouTube, we find a series of videos, starting with one by Seattle meteorologist M.J. McDermott called “Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth.” A take-off on the title of Al Gore’s bestselling book, this video is about 15 minutes long; please watch it now before you read on…

Wow! New-fangled textbooks are failing to teach basic skills, and kids are no longer learning how to multiply and divide (in the state of Washington) by the end of 5th grade! They arrive at college totally unprepared, and much of their college experience has to be spent as a kind of remedial camp.

That’s the impression one gets from this video. But we must back up and recognize that this is an ongoing debate. Ms. McDermott is really espousing a party line in what has become a math war – the philosophy of traditionalism.

Traditionalists, says The Irascible Professor, “favor a return to more traditional methods (direct instruction) that include greater emphasis on … multiplication tables, repeated drills…, and traditional word problems.”

Watching Ms. McDermott’s video, we get a demonization of the new math textbooks. Reading from the Irascible Professor, we realize this is a political-type of argument, and there is more than just one side to the story.

The Irascible Professor goes on to talk about Singapore Math — the approach taken to learning math in materials prepared in Singapore, the country that consistently ranks first in the world in its students’ average math preparation and test-taking abilities.

For today, I give the nod to the Professor for letting us know that there is more than one side to this story. I also appreciate Ms. McDermott’s contribution, if only for giving others the opportunity to respond to her on YouTube, which we will look at tomorrow!

But I also hold Ms. McDermott accountable for her decision to demonize her opponents and present this as a one-sided issue.