Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth

By Murray Bourne, 13 Aug 2007

This is a thought-provoking video. Should we teach math via algorithms? Should we be concerned about whether students understand what they are doing, or whether they can just get the right answer? How does technology fit into this? Should 10 year-olds use calculators for multiplication?

I am left wondering whether McDermott is getting a commission from the book she is promoting...

It's worth getting to the end when she talks about why she is fired up over this topic. She took a math course a few years back and was amazed at the problems exhibited by recent high school graduates:

  • Inability to work alone (because of an emphasis on group work in schools)
  • Lack of math fluency
  • Lack of basic math skills
  • Dependence on calculators

She plugs the Singapore mathematics textbooks, too.

See the 6 Comments below.

6 Comments on “Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth”

  1. euclid says:

    No doubt, Ms. McDermot makes some valid points. However she sounds like she is spouting ideas from Mathematically Correct.

    I'm not familiar with TERC but my own children have gone through the Everyday Math program. There is a lot of great mathematics presented through that curriculum. The secret to using these reform materials and for that matter the traditional materials is to supplement with what they lack. I've been teaching HS math for 20 years now and I've been using a standards based curriculum for 8 years now. No textbook is perfect. Whatever text you use, it needs supplementing. I've found it is a lot easier to supplement basic skills than it was to supplement problem solving and higher level thinking when I was using traditional materials exclusively.

    One keynote idea Ms. McDermot makes that I disagree with is just because parents can't do the math, that makes the technique a poor one to learn from? Send home the traditional worksheets for practice and do the reform math work in school.

  2. Entrepreneur says:

    Wow, I am shocked by the difficulty of the math solution being taught! I remember when I was in high school and I had a teacher who taught us algebra and it took what seemed forever to solve a single problem.

    One day our Chinese teacher, perplexed by all the time we were spending on our math, decided to give us a 10 minute lesson on how to solve for "x". It was the greatest 10 minutes of our lives as students (imagine the difference it made in our confidence and comprehension).

    We could do the math in less than a minute from then on and it made absolute sense. Our math teacher never accepted the method but at least it was really easy for us to check our answers from then on. And if we ran out of time doing it her way, we just did the the Chinese way and got partial points for it.

  3. Mathematics. « Crumpled Paper says:

    [...] Mathematics. 19 08 2007 Got from Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth [...]

  4. pkchukiss says:

    There is a reason why Singaporeans are near the top in maths and science quizzes around the world.

    From the looks of it, US schools do not concentrate on solving arithmetic problems, but on logic and reasoning. While that is not an issue in itself, not devoting at least some time to hard skills like solving basic maths causes problems at common places, like cashiers, toll plazas, where you have to calculate sums and count change.

    What the lady in the video is trying to put across is that standard maths skills should be taught in US schools. I don't believe that she would object to having the other two options taught too if the standard algorithm (as she puts it) is taught.

  5. Murray says:

    Euclid: "just because parents can’t do the math, that makes the technique a poor one to learn from?" - actually, that has been the case ever since I can remember. Educational fads come and go (at least one per generation), so it is almost inevitable that parents are lost when their kids ask for help.

    Entrepreneur: Can you remember that special Chinese "solving for x" trick? It would be good to put it here for the record.

    CrumpledPaper: I enjoyed your post, especially "It’s like the setters purposely place their answer in the depths of hell for students to search for, making our lives difficult."

    pkchukiss: It seems most people these days are "mental arithmetic challenged". I had a cashier the other day who needed to use a calculator to find the change from $10 when I bought 9 items at $1.10 each. Oh brother.

    Thanks for your comments, everyone!

  6. concernedCTparent says:

    You have to take an honest look at the Singapore Math books mentioned in the video before forming any kind of opinion. I started afterschooling/supplementing my first grader and fourth grader using Singapore Math last year because I was disturbed by the Everyday Math debacle in our schools. When I say disturbed, I am being very kind.

    Anyway, I cannot believe the results. They have always been very strong academically (both test in the gifted range) and excel at math, but now they are understanding math in such a profound way that it is difficult to explain or understand if you're not seeing it with your own eyes. I recently gave my daughter a placement test on Saxon and she scored in the pre-algebra/algebra I range and she is only 9.

    The word problems in Singapore Math are masterful. The logical sequence and increased level of challenge build understanding smoothly and incrementally. It just makes sense.

    They're quite a bargain too... you can purchase both the textbook and the work book for less than $20 with a full year's curriculum adding up to under $40 (sequence A/B).

    Word of warning though: Have your child do the free assessment on http://www.singaporemath.com website before choosing which level of the Primary Math series to begin with. The Singapore Math curriculum is about two grade levels ahead of what the typical students in the US are learning. It's really better to take a step back and cover the bases before moving forward especially if you want to plug the gaping holes left by Everyday Math.

    Just some food for thought.

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