Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Reviving Sputnik (or making math matter)

Every once in a while, there's a new wave of stories about how Americans are losing our edge in math and science. These articles usually talk about what happened in the wake of Sputnik. Suddenly, the story goes, Congress found money for training young mathematicians and giving young academics grants and the like. And we did wind up beating the Soviets to the moon. Maybe, the stories say, we should do the same now.

We're in the midst of another wave of such stories at the moment. President Bush is expected to talk about our competitiveness in these fields tonight in his State of the Union address. The Business Roundtable and US Chamber of Commerce are also lobbying on the matter. One proposal floating around is to pay math teachers more than other teachers, though this is vigorously opposed by the NEA. You can read about the push in an Associated Press article here.

Paying math teachers more is one solution. I'm a little wary of various proposals to "make math fun." These are noble in intent, but occasionally make math fun by watering it down. Don't get me wrong -- I hated doing worksheets of 90 single digit multiplication problems. But I recall reading an essay in O magazine last year about a young woman who hated math growing up, and then wrote that she was thrilled to see that some young people in her neighborhood now had a math program where they talked a lot about math, worked in groups and shied from the pure quant problems. Maybe that's an improvement, but I'm not sure. Some kids do like numbers without the fuzzy stuff.

I realize math is collaborative -- but I'd like to see collaboration follow after kids learn the basics individually. Here's my idea for improving America's math competitiveness. All classrooms could have a computer program (and enough screens) where kids work through math lesson plans and problems. If you get enough right, you move forward in the computer program. If you seem unsure about a concept, you or the machine summon your teacher. The teacher helps, and the computer program has tutorials as well. You move on when you master something. There are programs that approximate this now.

But the key part is that there should be no "end" of the program to correspond with the school year. If you master arithmetic, you move on to pre-algebra concepts. Master those, you move on to algebra, trigonometry, calculus, etc. One sixth grader could be stretching herself learning calculus while her classmate next to her is brushing up on her arithmetic. Both will be learning to the extent of their abilities. This is doable in a field like math (at least up through the calculus level or so) in a way it isn't in English or history. I bet you'd see a lot of kids learning a lot more than they do now. And gifted kids would be challenged. Maybe one of the tech companies pushing Congress to do something about math education could produce such a system.


Anonymous said...

As a gifted teacher, I would welcome this. In fact, I try to get some teachers to do something similar to this anyway. It's hard to get them to believe students can go at their own pace.

The only thing I would add is to have a day of problem solving with real life situations involving math. Sometimes, our students have trouble knowing how to begin a problem and what to do with the information.

Jason Smith said...

I believe that software for this already exists. Will try to see if I can find out the name of it.


Anonymous said...

What a coincidence. I just met with ds' K teacher and planned to ask about more time doing computation on the computer. Lo and behold, the teacher said that next week he will be able to use a program like what you describe starting next week! For some reason it's only 2x a week, but it's a start.

Jason Smith said...

Still have not found the software but I got this reply back from a friend who teaches HS math. Hopefully there are no 'holistic' math teachers or home schoolers out there who will be offended:

The "history of teaching math in the US":

Teaching Math In 1950
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is
4/5 of the price. What is his profit?

Teaching Math In 1960
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is
4/5 of the price, or $80. What is his profit?

Teaching Math In 1970
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production $80.
Did he make a profit?

Teaching Math In 1980
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is
$80 and his profit is $20. Your assignment: Underline the number 20.

Teaching Math In 1990
By cutting down beautiful forest trees, the logger makes $20. What do you
think of this way of making a living? Topic for class
participation after answering the question: How did the forest animals
(ie: birds and squirrels) feel as the logger cut down the trees? (There
are no wrong answers.)

Teaching Math In 2000
When deforesting rain forest, the farmer makes 200 Peso's. The carbon
monoxide emitted by the clearing of the land causes haze over the
beautiful people sitting at Starbucks. How much will it cost the US to manipulate NATO into enacting a embargo to stop the clearing?

A) 10 Million
B) 10 Billion
C) 10 Trillion

Laura Vanderkam said...

Well, sheesh. If it already exists...I should have come up with my idea a few years ago, and maybe I could have made it big!

Jason: I love the math through the ages post.

Jason Smith said...

Hi Laura

Even if it exists I am sure you could do a better job.

Re. math through the ages I am afraid to even take a stab at 2006



Anonymous said...

This does work for some assignments. However, so many people treat math as a linear process with a checklist. There is so much more to it. I teach both Math and Science. The basic concepts are the beginning. From the basics, that is where the door truly opens to each subject and where it all gets exciting. In my experience, the best and brightest have so many more questions. Put the more average children on the computers once the gifted are done and then have the gifted come to the teacher and let them ask questions. There is so much about the subjects that are interesting. Math History, math applications, all kinds of things would stimulate a gifted child. I don't know if you have really looked at Algebra books now. Parabolas are related to bridges, windows etc. There is lots of opportunity for Algebra I students to do a little Civil Engineering in their spare time. I only wish I had time for all my students to have this opportunity, but I'll give it to whoever is ready. And I believe that science and math should be the same class for gifted kids - and really all kids - at least until Algebra starts. So much is repeated without this - especially measurement, graphing and statistical data.

Evan Adams said...

This exists now. It's called Khan Academy and it's almost exactly what you describe, with the addition of a few elements like "achievements that "gamify" the learning process, but not the lessons themselves.