It seems as if there have been a lot of critiques of how we teachmath in the past couple of months. And now the author of a new book that links success in learning math to the “mindset” concept1 weighs in for The Atlantic, explaining the Math-Class Paradox.
If you ask most students what they think their role is in math classrooms, they will tell you it is to get questions right. Students rarely think that they are in math classrooms to appreciate the beauty of mathematics, to ask deep questions, to explore the rich set of connections that make up the subject, or even to learn about the applicability of the subject; they think they are in math classrooms to perform.
Students from an early age realize that math is different from other subjects. In many schools across the U.S., math is less about learning than it is about answering questions and taking tests—performing.
This school view of math as performance comes from their teachers, especially in elementary school, who “boil the subject down to producing short answers to narrow questions under pressure”. Hoping, of course, that this approach will get the kids to produce on the all-important spring standardized tests.
However, you can’t really blame teachers. They are working with the math curriculum, pretty much the same one taught in K12 for a hundred years or more, they have been given.
The fact that a narrow and impoverished version of mathematics is taught in many school classrooms cannot be blamed on teachers. Teachers are usually given long lists of content to teach, with hundreds of topics and no time to go into depth on any ideas. When teachers are given these lists, they see a subject that has been stripped down to its bare parts—like a dismantled bike—a collection of nuts and bolts that students are meant to shine and polish all year. Such lists not only take away the connections that weave all through mathematics, but present math as though the connections do not even exist.
Those connections, not only within mathematics but the applications to many other disciplines, was what I found most interesting when I taught the subject. And I tried hard to convey those connections to my students. But even in the pre-NCLB era when the end-of-course exam did not loom as large, the curriculum was still overloaded with crap. Time for open-ended questioning and exploring the messy world of applied math was still limited.