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A Mathematician’s Lament - how math is being taught all wrong

By Murray Bourne, 19 Aug 2009

Now here's something that I can relate to.

Lockhart's Lament [no longer available] rails against the way mathematics is taught in too many schools — as a rigid system of mindless algebraic rules with little meaning and very little beauty. It's by Paul Lockhart who has been a math researcher as well as a K-12 math teacher.

The opening paragraph caught my attention immediately:

A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made— all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer.

His point, of course, is that much mathematics education is hijacked by people who know nothing about it.

This is a long but passionate rave and well worth the jolt that it may give you (math student and math teacher alike).

Towards the end he gives a summary of what is really going on in the math curriculum. Here's one of the entries:

MIDDLE SCHOOL MATH. Students are taught to view mathematics as a set of procedures, akin to religious rites, which are eternal and set in stone. The holy tablets, or “Math Books,” are handed out, and the students learn to address the church elders as “they” (as in “What do they want here? Do they want me to divide?”) Contrived and artificial “word problems” will be introduced in order to make the mindless drudgery of arithmetic seem enjoyable by comparison. Students will be tested on a wide array of unnecessary technical terms, such as ‘whole number’ and ‘proper fraction,’ without the slightest rationale for making such distinctions. Excellent preparation for Algebra I.

His views are sometimes extreme, but well expressed and certainly well worth the read (if it was still available...).

See the 6 Comments below.

6 Comments on “A Mathematician’s Lament - how math is being taught all wrong”

  1. John Foster says:

    Lockhart expresses exactly what I'm feeling at the moment. I'm currently developing a set of intervention and extension exercises for grade 6 students, and my brief is "inquiry based pedagogy to improve solution of word-based-problems and national test results". So activities have to fit into a defined "process" for decoding problems, and deciding the algorithm to use. Not helping the kids think mathematically, to see the simple, to appreciate the beauty. Just how to get better scores on a test. How to follow a process. How to follow "rules". And now I feel so unclean, knowing that I'm not teaching maths at all, in fact I'm burying the maths under a "method" and calling this mathematics.

  2. Murray says:

    Welcome to math teaching, John...

    Unfortunately, at the end of the day, we still need to get the students to jump through the assessment hoops successfully. But there is still scope at the individual teacher level to help them see the beauty.

  3. Saw Aung Kyaw Oo says:

    That's one of the reasons why I have gotten to like a website like this one- which explains not only the "how" but also the "why" of Math as we know it. Need to show the kids both.

  4. The Book I Wish I Had Written | CTK Insights says:

    [...] A Mathematician’s Lament – how math is being taught all wrong [...]

  5. A Mathematician’s Lament « The cheap researcher says:

    [...] Math is taught all wrong [...]

  6. tina says:

    as an experienced primary teacher, with maths being a subject I tutor, I often see a difference in learning abilities between boys and girls in maths. the attention towards maths by girls specifically in year 3 or so (8 years of age) is

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