Sunday, September 22, 2013

Multiplying my Math Musings

image from Wikimedia Commons

It is hard to believe that we are almost through the first six weeks of the school year and that October is upon us.  It is not hard to believe that I have not written a blog post since August however.  The fast pace of the school year is upon us, and it seems like the days are traveling faster than the Millennium Falcon at hyper-speed.  But just because I have not committed them to digital paper, it does not mean that I have not been thinking for the last month.  In particular I have been thinking about math.

I am not, nor will I ever admit to being, good at math.  It was not a subject that I enjoyed, or excelled at, while I was at any level of my schooling.  With my love for economics and problem solving, this should be a surprise, but I just can't seem to make math make sense in my brain.  When I have students come to me who are struggling in math, I can easily sympathize, but not so easily help them and this extends now to my own daughter Sophie.

My inability to help Soph with her math is not something new, as she exceeded my current math memories when she began taking pre-algebra 2 years ago, but 2 weeks ago it all boiled over.  It was a rare evening when I was home earlier enough for Sophie to still be doing her math homework and as she struggled she asked me a geometry question:  "If two sides of a triangle are congruent, are the angles congruent?"  I am sure my high school geometry teacher Mr. Allen would love for me to say that some 29 years later I was able to quickly answer this problem, but the reality is I could vaguely recall what congruent meant, but had no idea what the answer was, so I turned to Google.  Google quickly informed me that this would be true, and I went back to reading an article titled Why Nate Silver Can Save Math Education in America from Mindshift.

Sophie, quickly then interrupted my thoughts with another question, which I cannot recall, and I in frustration asked her how it was that she had just watched my Google the previous answer that she could not take her phone, which was sitting next to her, and do the same thing that I would be doing for this question.  This was not one of my finest parenting moments and did not go over very well.  My frustration was being driven by two things, one the embarrassment and frustration of not being able to help my daughter (and painful realization that she is mathematically much smarter than me) and the frustration that she was not using the technological tools she has been given to problem solve on her own-but that is a topic for another post.

After the residue of my frustration had again settled, I apologized to my daughter, finished the article I was reading,  and found her some pencils from the Rose Hulman homework helpline Ask Rose (1-877-Ask-Rose).  The article, however, struck a chord with me, because of 3 quotations that I have excerpted below:

 Paul Lockhart, a math teacher in New York, writes in A Mathematician’s Lament [PDF] that if he had to design a system for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, he couldn’t possible do a better job than is currently being done. He explains that he simply wouldn’t have the “imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.”
Across the land, kids hate math. You can hear it in their constant groans and see it in their deranged faces. They ask their teachers, “When am I ever going to use this in life?” On most occasions, they never will. Even President Obama agrees. He recently said on the Tonight Show, “The math stuff I was fine with until seventh grade. Malia is now a freshmen in high school and I’m pretty lost. It’s tough.” 
There are lots of reasons for this. In the current system, students’ confidence in their math abilities becomes undermined, according to a Duke University study. Math is taught as computation rather than a means of exploration and discovery. Instead of engaging in meaningful problems and learning in depth rather than breadth, kids are assigned frivolous, repetitive problems. And finally, the way math is generally taught has no relevance to real life. School has become a practice of learning tricks for the test one week and forgetting the next.
These statements resonated with me,  because there was a time, that I vaguely remember in the far reaches of my mind, when I was good at math.  When I was in the highest math group, and I enjoyed math-6th grade.  But after that, math became the drudgery described above for me, the relevance left, and I moved on to other subjects that I enjoyed more.  This is not a post blaming my teachers, or even the system that taught me that I am not more engaged in math, but it is one to ponder about why it seems soo many students seem to hate it so.  So I have spent the last two weeks talking via email with math teachers on our staff, reading more articles about math.  The two most impactful being an ASCD article on Real World Math by Dan Meyer and a blog post by Mike Thayer on his Hyperbolic Guitars Blog in response to Nicholson Baker's September 2013 Harper's article on Algebra 2 in which he (Mr. Baker) advocates that we stop teaching math without a narrative and that instead of requiring all students to take the math sequences we now offer in school (Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2, Pre-Calculus, etc..) we require a math survey course and then allow students who desire more math to pursue the higher level courses as electives.  

Both of these resonated with me for different reasons.  The blog post by Mr. Thayer exposed me to discussions that appear to be happening more frequently in the math education community about how to restructure math, many, but not all, driven by the changes to come with the Common Core Standards, but also made me think about how eliminating the requirements for higher level math might further widen the achievement gap in the United States.

An Aside:  This article by the way, completely flipped my view on higher math from a year earlier after reading Andrew Hacker's NY Times article Is Algebra Necessary?  that had appealed to my desire to spare others my frustration with math and got me to think more about how we teach math vs. is math necessary.  Hacker's argument to get rid of a required subject, just because students dislike it and see no relevance in the "real world" could be applied to any subject.  History teachers often hear this same complaint and Bob Knight once famously said (of sportswriters) "All of us learn to write in second grade, most of us go on to greater things" yet we still require English courses at all levels despite protestations of students and rarely do we hear of calls to eliminate those courses.

The second connected because as I watched the video from Mr. Meyer, I realized that this is what I wanted math to be.  I don't want to watch my daughter be frustrated doing problems 1-25 odds only on a nightly basis, I want her to be able to connect her learning to the world around her.  To be using the math she is learning to solve real problems.  To see the joy and pride that she has in the house she designed on Minecraft applied to her using math to design real houses.  To watch her ponder how to build a better tree house on the Simple Physics App but to have the lessons of that exercise made more concrete through the skill of a math expert. To see her again be doing math online during the summer, simply for the joy of doing math. To end the "hoop jumping" that my colleague Michael Delp so passionately expressed last fall.  My only remaining question is this:  If our math teachers are recognizing the futility and frustration they are causing, if the common core is set to force students to use math in a much more applied fashion, what is keeping all of us from teaching more like the video below?