Why math education is failing

A backlink to my post What kind of mathematical knowledge should teachers have?   brought me to the essay by Matthew Brenner titled The Four Pillars Upon Which the Failure of Math Education Rests (and what to do about them). Here’s the quote from the essay posted in Wild about Math.

Kids are taught math as pets are taught tricks. A dog has no idea why its master wants it to perform. With careful training many dogs can be taught to perform complex sequences of actions in response to various commands and cues. When a dog is taught to perform a trick it has no need or use for any “understanding” beyond which sequence of movements its trainer desires. The dog is taught a sequence of simple physical movements in a specific order to create an overall effect. In the same way, we teach children to perform a sequence of simple computations in a specific order to achieve an overall effect. The dog uses its feet to move about a space and manipulate objects; the student uses a pencil to move about a page and manipulate numbers. In most cases, the student doesn’t know any more than the dog about the effect he creates. Neither has any intrinsic motivation to perform nor any idea why the performance is demanded. Practice, practice, practice, and eventually the dog can perform reliably on command. This is exactly how kids are trained to perform math: do a hundred meaningless practice problems, and then try to do the same trick on the test.

Mr.Brenner’s observation is as true in America as it is here in the Philippines. This is a painful truth but something that we all must take seriously. I strongly encourage our teachers, those writing our new curriculum framework (I think this is our third within the decade), textbook publishers and our DepEd officials to read the entire essay. The author outlined the reasons why math education is failing but he also offers solutions which I believe are doable even if our average class size here is 60! Let me list the 10 point solutions:

  1. Understanding Must be Central in Math Education
  2. Textbooks Must Not be Allowed to Undermine Math Education
  3. Teachers Must Stop Teaching Math as They Learned It
  4. Curricula Must be Coherent and Cumulative
  5. Worked Examples Must be Emphasized for New Material
  6. Curricula Must Include Examples of Excellent Performance
  7. Assignments Must Draw on the Old and the New
  8. Content Must be Meaningful and Contexts Must be Rich
  9. Metacognitive Activity Must Pervade Mathematical Activity
  10. Language Must be Taught, Used and Evaluated Fairly
I do not agree with #5 proposal because I believe that mathematics should be taught in the context of solving problems but I think this is a very good list. Find time to read it. Mr. Brenner also offers very good sample lessons. You may also want to read 10 signs there’s something not right in school maths and let us know your thoughts.