Sunday, July 29, 2012

Is math necessary in school?

There is a provocative Op-ed in today's New York Times.  The piece was written by Andrew Hacker, a professor emeritus from Queens College.  A selection from the piece is below as is a link to the full article. 

One criticism I can offer of the piece is that it demonstrates how difficult (perhaps impossible) it is to delineate the boundary between those who learn math and those who don't.  Poets would seem to be not close to this boundary.  But do note that Whitman wrote When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer.  Though a critique of an exclusively mathematical and analytic approach to astronomy, wouldn't it be true that if Whitman knew no math whatsoever he wouldn't have attended the lecture in the first place?  Perhaps a more telling criticism is Hacker's comment about Medical School requirements.  Doctors, one might surmise, need a working knowledge of statistics to be able to assess new developments in the profession in order to recommend treatments and therapies.  Where does that working knowledge of statistics come from?  Framing the issue this way, the calculus requirement doesn't appear misplaced to me. 

There is a different way in which I agree with Hacker.  Many students aim is to "get through" the math as distinct from learning it so it is part of their own way of thinking about the world.  In essence getting through the math is an admission that they can't learn it.  I've written about the issue in an essay called Guessing In Math.  There is very little value to be had in any area of study when then the student's aim is to get through the course. 

Nonetheless, I'm not enamored with Hacker's solution to the issue.  Having some recall of my own development with math, I believe the focus should rightly be grades 3 to 5.  Some algebra and geometry ideas need to be inserted there, in a way that are accessible to these very young minds.  Jerome Bruner's discovery approach would seem essential.  I'm guessing that most kids aren't taught that way early on.  That's the real shame of it all.

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