Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Some (slightly) radical thoughts on math

I wouldn't be surprised if most or all of my kids hate reading. After all, I always hated reading in school. I'm still lousy at it, and I don't do it unless I have to. But I guess everybody has to learn to read, so they'll have to do an hour or so of reading worksheets every day while they're in school. They'll hate it, and probably forget most of it, but what else can we do?

You don't believe that paragraph, of course. Indeed, you wouldn't believe anyone even moderately well-educated would say such things. But substitute "math" for "reading" and it doesn't sound nearly so odd, does it? We seem to expect that except for the favored few math whizzes, destined to be scientists, engineers, or actuaries, everyone else will merely suffer through math, finding it dull, confusing, and forgettable.

I don't think it should be that way--or that it has to be that way. Nobody thinks that only future authors and literary critics can learn to enjoy reading, or learn to write well enough to compose their own love letters and shopping lists. Math is the language that the universe speaks, a tool necessary for survival, and a source of beauty and pleasure. It ought to be available to everyone.

If the trouble isn't in the subject, then it must be in the teaching. Nobody expects to raise good readers by years of rehearsing phonetic charts alone. There is a time and a place for phonics instruction--at least for many children--but you learn what reading is by time with books, real books that tell you things you want to know. Unfortunately, most children's contact with math has no connection to reality; to the extent it does, it is tacked on arbitrarily at the end, through those dreaded story problems about things they care nothing about.

All the math usually taught in the first eight years of school is easily contained in a book that one could work through in the course of a year. They just repeat the same thing, a little more complexly, every year. And review, review, review.

Nobody needs to review their phonics charts once they can read fluently. Similarly, endless review of math facts once learned is only needed if you're not actually using math. If they aren't going to use the math, why teach it to them? And if they are using it, why waste their time?

Most elementary math books concentrate on drilling in computation skills. But that's not the primary need in math. The most important thing is to be able to think about a problem and figure out how to solve it. If you can do that, you can always work out the computational details on your own. If you can't, the fastest time on your multiplication worksheets won't help you.

What if instead of trudging through all those years of math books, children spent most of those seven years dealing with math first in reality, using it to find out things they wanted to know, exploring math games and puzzles, watching how adults used math in real life, and spending a comparatively small amount of time learning how to express those ideas--once they fully owned them--in symbols?

I suspect they'd come through much more thoroughly grounded in mathematics than those who had gone through the best traditional course in mathematics. If they had missed something (and I think with some preparation and challenges that would be unlikely), they would still have a year to sit down with a good comprehensive overview of arithmetic and pick up what they'd missed before starting into higher math on the normal schedule. In the meantime, they would have learned the why of math, and they would not have learned to hate it.

1 comment:

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