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[ME] Math Myopia (John Allen Paulos)
Posted:
Jan 27, 2000 12:03 PM


************************************************* This is an interesting column you may want to share with a lot of your colleagues ... from Lynn Steen and Ken Ross, with thanks: Forbes [magazine], January 24, 2000 See http://www.forbes.com/forbes/00/0124/6502036a.htm *************************************************
Math Myopia
By John Allen Paulos
An uproar over soft teaching methods shouldn't blind us to the fact that mathematics does not have to be boring.
"Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision" is how Lewis Carroll referred to addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Although most people resonate with this repugnance toward computation, most would also grant its frequent necessity.
This tension underlies the latest skirmish in the simmering Math War. The issue is the proper place of computation and algorithms (stepbystep procedures) in the school curriculum. What, in particular, is their relation to such often neglected skills as understanding graphs, interpreting probability, modeling situations, applying mathematical concepts in other domains or estimating and comparing magnitudes?
Textbooks and curriculums that attempt to foster the skills mentioned above have been criticized as insufficiently rigorous. When the Department of Education recently endorsed some of these new curriculums as "exemplary," a group of prominent mathematicians published a letter to Education Secretary Richard Riley claiming that many of the recommended books and programs neglect basic algorithms.
This might seem a parochial controversy were it not for the social cost of our arithmetical failingsclerks who are perplexed by discounts and sales taxes, medical personnel who have difficulty reckoning correct dosages, quality control managers who don't understand simple statistics, voters who can't recognize tradeoffs between contrary desiderata and journalists who are sometimes oblivious to serious risks but apoplectic over trivial ones.
Although there is no real opposition between understanding concepts and mastering algorithms, extreme positions are easy to parody. Assigning 500 longdivision problems to elementary school students is a sure way to stultify them. So is requiring older students to factor 500 polynomials in algebra class or to differentiate 500 functions in calculus class.
On the other hand, the reformist endeavor (with which I've been associated) to tell stories, describe applications, play games and naturally embed mathematical insights and ideas into everyday life can also be mocked. Thoughtlessly implemented, it can lead to a feelgood, wishywashy ineffectiveness. A new "aha" experience and engaging vignette can't be required for every problem, and a mere glimmer of the idea generally isn't sufficient to secure numerical answers.
The proper balance depends on the student's age and background, and the specific algorithm. There is no royal road to mathematical education, certainly not one capable of being reduced to a column. Despite common belief, arithmetic is not easy (see the problem at the bottom of this page); nor are "higherlevel" subjects necessarily difficult. Some "elementary" algorithms, such as those for dealing with fractions, may be drudgery if they are not presented well, but they are mathematically significant and essential to real understanding. No stories about combining parts of pies or salaries, for example, can replace the formal rules for finding 2/7+3/11.
Acknowledging that there are glaring weaknesses in some of the new recommended programs, I'm pleased that they stress applications and concepts and do not place an undue emphasis on rote repetition. We should no more be teaching our children to try to compete with $5 calculators than we should be training them to dig ditches with hand shovels.
In arithmetic the stories and applications should set the stage and provide motivation for understanding the algorithms. The many good people on opposite sides of the Math War should recompute their strategies.
Problem: Imagine buying 100 pounds of potatoes and being told that they're 99% water. After the potatoes have been left outdoors for a day, you're told that they're now 98% water. What is the weight of these slightly dehydrated potatoes?
Answer: 50 pounds. Since 99% of the original 100 pounds of potatoes is water, only 1 pound is "pure potato stuff." Hence this 1 pound must constitute 2% of the P pounds of partially dehydrated potatoes remaining, which means P equals 50 pounds.
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Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 629014610 USA Fax: (618) 4534244 Phone: (618) 4534241 (office) (618) 4578903 (home) Email: jbecker@siu.edu
mailto://jbecker@siu.edu



