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2013 January 05 Saturday
The Stupidification Of Math Teaching In America

It seems like the United States already has enough reasons to have a stagnant economy with declining living standards. We don't need any more reasons to decay. But the forces lined up on the side of decay keep looking bigger the closer I look. The US National Science Foundation funded the development of new ways to teach math. The new ways are retarded. The kids are taught less effective ways to do the most basic operations like multiplication. Really. Read the whole thing.

One teacher tried to explain the new method. "It used to be that if you missed a concept or method in math, then you were lost for the rest of the year. But the way we do it now, kids have a lot of ways to do things, like adding and subtracting, so that math topics from day to day aren't dependent on kids' mastering a previous lesson."

This was my initiation into the world of reform math. It is a world where understanding takes precedence over procedure and process trumps content. In this world, memorization is looked down upon as "rote learning" and thus addition and subtraction facts are not drilled in the classroom--it's something for students to learn at home. Inefficient methods for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing are taught in the belief that such methods expose the conceptual underpinning of what is happening during these operations. The standard (and efficient) methods for these operations are delayed sometimes until 4th and 5th grades, when students are deemed ready to learn procedural fluency.

Why are such stupid ideas repeatedly tried in American high schools and grade schools? Here are theories:

  • Since university education departments attract dumber faculty and students than other departments it is a matter of the dumb leading the dumber. An obvious solution would be to abolish education departments in colleges and universities. Cut out the cancer.
  • Yet another stupid reaction to the denial of the findings of psychometric research about IQ differences. Since lower IQ kids can't be taught to do math as well as higher IQ kids blame the teaching method and try a different (albeit stupid) method.
  • Another leftist variation of the Rousseau Noble Savage idea where the mind is given more credit for wisdom to discover the truth if just freed from patriarchial oppressive regimentation.

Leftists in America try to paint the American Right as anti-knowledge and anti-reason. Yet skepticism toward academia is healthy and useful. Some academic disciplines (e.g. sociology, education) build up theories based on very wrong assumptions about human nature. Their studies are poorly constructed and they do a bad job of analyzing their data. They suffer from a bad case of confirmation bias.

We need much more online education in order to give the buyers many more choices that allow them to avoid the worst of American education. We can not expect existing institutions to repair themselves. We need to avoid them and work around them.

Update: how math gets "taught":

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2013 January 05 06:09 PM 


Comments
tj hooker said at January 5, 2013 9:28 PM:

"It used to be that if you missed a concept or method in math, then you were lost for the rest of the year".

Really??? So one day Billy misses a concept and is then "lost", I assume that means he's not doing well on his homework or tests and the teacher can't figure this out or intervene?

Paleo Retiree said at January 5, 2013 10:59 PM:

I understand math, I just can't do it.

Engineer-Poet said at January 6, 2013 11:22 AM:

Math is logically progressive; concepts build on other concepts.  If you don't understand e.g. long division, you will not be able to understand synthetic division of polynomials.  If you don't understand fractions and properties like commutation and association, you will be unable to grasp algebra.

The teaching of math shouldn't be controlled by "educators", it should be done under the control of the people who use math as a tool and know what things a student has to master in order to use it effectively.  Kids who can't use what they've learned are crippled, no matter how much "conceptual understanding" they may have.

James Bowery said at January 6, 2013 1:16 PM:

Governments tax people to pay for their indoctrination from an early age -- starting with "The Pledge of Allegiance". "Education" is a cover to get parents to give up indoctrination and the need for the cover is a hold-over from the pre-women's lib age when a mother could have directly participated in the education of her children because "A woman's place is in the home."

As a consequence, even the pretense of providing an education in order to wrest control of young minds is largely moot.

Stephen said at January 6, 2013 4:14 PM:

Engineer-Poet said, "The teaching of math shouldn't be controlled by "educators", it should be done under the control of the people who use math as a tool and know what things a student has to master in order to use it effectively."

The problem is that those people tend to have better things to do than spend their productive years teaching kids. So society works with what it has, generalist teachers. During the course of a day they'll teach English Lit, next its Maths, then it might be Science. Few of those teachers will have an in-depth knowledge about the subject they're teaching, but that's not their fault if the actual experts aren't bothered to teach.

Engineer-Poet said at January 6, 2013 5:04 PM:

The expert users shouldn't be in front of classrooms.  Some small set of them should be vetting curricula and tests, and working with the psychometricians to be sure that what's necessary is actually being imparted.

Toadal said at January 6, 2013 8:48 PM:

OK, So transform inferior teachers into teaching assistants who provide math software designed by people who use math as a tool and know what things a student has to master in order to used effectively.

Mthson said at January 7, 2013 4:57 AM:

Toadal, that sounds like the right approach.

Reminds me of the automated pilot programs the Khan Academy is doing:
--------------
[The instructor is now] “flipping” the way her class works. This involves replacing some of her lectures with Khan’s videos, which students can watch at home. Then, in class, they focus on working problem sets. The idea is to invert the normal rhythms of school, so that lectures are viewed on the kids’ own time and homework is done at school. It sounds weird, Thordarson admits, but this flipping makes sense when you think about it. It’s when they’re doing homework that students are really grappling with a subject and are most likely to need someone to talk to. And now Thordarson can tell just when this grappling occurs: Khan Academy provides teachers with a dashboard application that lets her see the instant a student gets stuck...

The result is that Thordarson’s students move at their own pace. Those who are struggling get surgically targeted guidance, while advanced kids like Carpenter rocket far ahead; once they’re answering questions without making mistakes, Khan’s site automatically recommends new topics to move on to. Over half the class is now tackling subjects like algebra and geometric formulas. And even the less precocious kids are improving: Only 3 percent of her students were classified as average or lower in end-of-year tests, down from 13 percent at midyear.

For years, teachers like Thordarson have complained about the frustrations of teaching to the “middle” of the class. They stand at the whiteboard, trying to get 25 or more students to learn the same stuff at the same pace...
--------------

Engineer-Poet said at January 7, 2013 9:07 AM:

If "flipping" is enough like "blended learning", unions will soon be fighting to have it prohibited.

AMac said at January 8, 2013 2:45 PM:

I have good-to-excellent facility with math. I regularly use arithmetic, algebra, simple calculus, and simple statistics. My 5th and 7th grade kids are in a parochial school that uses an approach based on the Singapore curriculum. It requires rote memorization (e.g. times tables), and mastery of procedures like long division.

Based on what I see from helping with homework and reviewing tests: this method is effective. Being able to confidently apply an algorithm to arrive at the correct answer is a big confidence-builder in and of itself. ISTM that understanding follows more than it precedes.

When one of the kids gets stuck, the first go-to is now the Khan Academy videos. Also effective.

My older son experienced the "Whole Language" fad as he was learning to read. Took years to recover from it.

The incentive structure for the Education-Industrial Establishment is fairly clear. It will be very difficult to get tenure by trying to publish "duh" research that confirms that an oft-used traditional method is effective. It will be much easier to win by submitting exciting manuscripts that prove that some new, Blank-Slate-friendly scheme propels students to new heights while promoting diversity and closing the gap.

Once these professors fill the Promotions Committee, what sort of programs will they look for in their institution's new hires? To ask the question is to answer it.

Stupidification is partly the result of a perverse incentive structure.

Check it out said at January 8, 2013 6:34 PM:

The stupidification of school curricula has nothing to do with the right or the left. It is known that education tends to improve under socialist systems. I believe that the stupidification of education in the U.S. doesn't come from any "left", nor is it unintended. I believe it is very much intended as another form of institutionalized agression towards the people, by those in power regardless of the party they belong to.

AMac said at January 9, 2013 4:07 AM:

I have good-to-excellent facility with math. I regularly use arithmetic, algebra, simple calculus, and simple statistics. My 5th and 7th grade kids are in a parochial school that uses an approach based on the Singapore curriculum. It requires rote memorization (e.g. times tables), and mastery of procedures like long division.

Based on what I see from helping with homework and reviewing tests: this method is effective. Being able to confidently apply an algorithm to arrive at the correct answer is a big confidence-builder in and of itself. ISTM that understanding follows more than it precedes.

When one of the kids gets stuck, the first go-to is now the Khan Academy videos. Also effective.

My older son experienced the "Whole Language" fad as he was learning to read. Took years to recover from it.

The incentive structure for the Education-Industrial Establishment is fairly clear. It will be very difficult to get tenure by trying to publish "duh" research that confirms that an oft-used traditional method is effective. It will be much easier to win by submitting exciting manuscripts that prove that some new, Blank-Slate-friendly scheme propels students to new heights while promoting diversity and closing the gap.

Once these professors fill the Promotions Committee, what sort of programs will they look for in their institution's new hires? To ask the question is to answer it.

Stupidification is partly the result of a perverse incentive structure.

Engineer-Poet said at January 9, 2013 8:01 PM:
It will be much easier to win by submitting exciting manuscripts that prove that some new, Blank-Slate-friendly scheme propels students to new heights while promoting diversity and closing the gap.
This suggests a solution:  go over that research, prove that it was faulty or even fraudulent, and get the dishonest clowns tossed out of academe.  This frees up a tenured position for someone who's not a Marxist.  Heck, maybe you could clear out whole departments at once.

I haven't been paying close attention, but if I'd heard that someone was denied tenure as a physics professor because they failed to come up with something that debunked General Relativity I think I would have remembered.

Randall Parker said at January 10, 2013 7:10 PM:

Check it out,

It is known that education tends to improve under socialist systems.

It was known in the Middle Ages that the Earth is flat and spirits caused diseases.

Mei Mei said at January 15, 2013 5:29 PM:

Brilliant video! Our district adopted the Investigations series and told it's staff, "You WILL teach this..." after providing seminars on differentiated instruction (mixed messages?). My current fifth grade class is the first group to have full Investigations since kindergarten and the deficits are ASTONISHING! Why would ANY district, dept. of education, etc. entertain a math series that teaches that algorithms are the devil? The Investigations/TERC sales team should be applauded!

Engineer-Poet said at January 15, 2013 9:37 PM:

Don't you mean that the curriculum staff of your district should be assassinated?

Just trying to clarify.

some anonymous guy said at January 17, 2013 8:15 PM:

There's something else that ParaPundit may not have considered: mathematicians. Some mathematicians believe that grade school math classes should be tailored to teaching kids like they themselves were. And every parent knows that their kid is as smart as the mathematicians and should be taught in that manner. In particular, the parents of the low-IQ kids demand to know why their special snowflake is not with the other gifted and talented kids.

The education idiots know what the mathematicians told them. Who are the education masters degrees who are interested in math? They are the math undergrads who weren't smart enough to be either math grad students or go into industry as a programmer or engineer or something. They have always relied on the smarter math majors in their classes and the office hours the mathematicians have. They respect the opinions of the mathematicians implicitly.

The reason for pushing concepts on grade school students is mathematicians. It would be better to single out the students with high enough IQs and teach them differently. But that's impossible.


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