Failing Math (Instruction)

By way of KQED’s Mind/Shift blog comes a post asking Does our approach to teaching math fail even the smartest kids?

The answer is most definitely yes, and here’s the fundamental reason why.

Indeed, traditional math curriculum is to teach discrete algorithms, a set of rules that elicit a correct answer, like how to do long division, say, or how to use the Pythagorean theorem. Then students “learn” the material by doing a large quantity of similar problems. The result, says Rusczyk [founder of the online math program Art of Problem Solving], is that students are rarely asked to solve a problem they are not thoroughly familiar with. Instead, they come to think of math as a series of rules to be memorized. The trouble is kids don’t necessarily learn how to attack a new or different kind of equation.

Math instruction, especially in high school, is more about getting the “right” answer to canned problems than it is about understanding the process of mathematics and how it is used to do real work. And those right answers are rarely the messy, not-necessarily-exact, sometimes-ambiguous results found in the real world.

Another major reason why K12 math instruction fails kids (and leads to the high drop out rate from STEM programs in college, the starting point for the post) is the endless repetition throughout the elementary and middle school curriculum. We wring any interest in problem solving using mathematical tools from the kids by boring them with the same material year after year, only with larger numbers.

That includes continuing to cover the many mechanical processes that calculators and computers made unnecessary years ago. Once kids have a grasp on the concept of division, do they really need to do page after page of long division problems? I taught math for eighteen years and still don’t understand why anyone needs to divide fractions.

The math curriculum in most K12 schools in this country has been in need of major overhaul for many years, but it’s not likely to change for a variety of reason, not the least being the standardized tests we use to assess student learning in the subject at the most basic level.

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