Saturday, December 23, 2006

"What's Wrong With Education?" Sorry, Wrong Answer

First read this editorial by Roger Schank.

Wrong Problem, Wrong Solution
Friday, December 15, 2006 2:23 AM

Math and Science, oh my. What will we do? We don’t produce enough students interested in math and science. Something must be done. I hear this refrain so often my head hurts.

First my credentials: I was a math major in college. I got 98 on every math Regent’s test offered. (I lived in New York where testing ruled in the world in the 50’s too.) My mother always asked where the other two points went. I grew up to be a computer science professor. I am not a math phobe. But neither am I a math proponent. I never used math in my professional life. Never ever.

I always start any discussion on education by asking if the person I am talking with knows the quadratic formula. One out of hundred knows it. (The last few people I asked included the head of a major testing service, the secretary of education of a state in the US, various state legislators, and 200 high school principals. Then why do we teach this obviously useless piece of information to every student in the world? Because math is important, of course.

Really? Show me the evidence.

As a person who did graduate admissions for 30 years at three of the top ten universities in the country, I know what this hysteria is actually about. Nearly all applicants to graduate computer science programs (which is what I know – but it is true in most fields of engineering and science) are foreign nationals. We wonder why American kids aren’t interested in these fields – which is a reasonable enough question. But then we have come up with an extraordinary answer.

What we say is that we must teach math and science better in high school. There are now so many programs meant to do this it makes my head spin. Here are reasons why this is simply the wrong answer.

Do we really believe that the reason that there so many foreign applicants to US graduate programs is that they teach math and science better in other countries? China and India provide most of the applicants. They also have most of the people. And many of those people will do anything to live in the U.S. So they cram math down their own throats knowing that it is a ticket to America. Very few of these applicants are coming from Germany, Sweden, France or Italy. Is this because they teach math badly there or is it because those people aren’t desperate to move to the U.S.?

In the U.S., students are not desperate to move to the US, so when you suggest to them that they numb themselves with formulas and equations they refuse to do so. The right answer would be to make math and science actually interesting, but with those awful tests as the ultimate arbiter of success this is very difficult to do.

No change in education will ever happen in the US until the testing mentality is done away with. No average high functioning adult could pass them so why make kids do it? This makes no sense. What also makes no sense is the idea that math and science are important subjects. You can live a happy life without ever having taken a physics course or knowing what a logarithm is.

On the other hand, being able to reason on the basis of evidence actually is important. Thinking rationally and logically is important. Knowing how to function in a world that includes new technology and all kinds of health issues is important. Knowing how things work and being able to fix them and perhaps design them is important.

Lets get serious. We don’t need more math and science. We need more people who can think.

We need to teach job skills, people skills, and reasoning skills. And we need to make education exciting and interesting. We need performance tests not competence tests. If we did all that we would get more Americans interested in math and science because we would get more Americans actually interested in being in school.

This teacher blog wrote a post in response:
When discussing education reform, every writer, every politician, every “expert”, eventually arrives at one point: students need more math and science.

Why? Because math is important.

Roger Schank
thinks that conclusion is all wrong and asks for someone to offer the evidence.
I’m not ready to buy all of Schank’s arguments but he does make some excellent points about education reform with these thoughts.

Although I taught math for many years, I can see a lot of logic in that.

We should be trading the rote memorization of arcane mathematical processes for a curriculum that instead helps kids understand how to think for themselves.

Those few students who need the quadratic formula will eventually learn it when presented with a good reason to do so.

I say:
Complete B.S.

First of all, Roger-man, take it down a notch with self-aggrandization. Do you really begin all your education conversations proving yourself more intelligent than other bigwigs, by asking them about the quadratic equation? Seriously? When you forgot to use an apostrophe for "let's"? Get off your high mathematical horse, dude.

And you never used math as a computer science professor? Last I checked, all science required a lot of math. Perhaps I am wrong, though.

Second of all, have you ever BEEN in a public school below college level? Do you know anything about the wave of balanced literacy and emphasis on strategy instead of skills? Do you know anything about elementary and secondary curriculum at this time? Have you ever tried to TEACH any children in any country?

If not, then sorry, you can stop giving advice now.

You have a good starting point--things are definitely wrong with the American educational system. I completely agree that the testing has gone way out of control.

Unfortunately, some of those other wrong things involve people like you, people who have never been in a real school setting and want to impose your hoity-toity, smartypants ideas on everyone else.

As for curriculum and knowledge in foreign countries, yes, they are superior, in my opinion. I know that any random non-US high school graduate knows more about American history and politics than any random American college student. They also begin learning English before age 13, as well as a THIRD language after that. Whereas we don't actually teach the English language to our native speakers, and we have ridiculously low requirements for two years of foreign language.

Students in China and Japan (and maybe other Asian countries as well?) are in school or studying many more hours than American students. That alone will produce more intelligent citizens for jobs, no matter what country they decide to live in or go to.

We have watered down EVERYTHING in our schools.

The students in my school have never been required to do 'minor things' like memorize their times tables or check their spelling. Middle school math teachers who have to teach algebra and geometry simply cannot do so if the students barely have a grasp of simple operations.

They don't have those basic skills because of people just like you, who think school and math in particular should be 'fun' and 'exciting' and 'interesting.'

That is the biggest fallacy plaguing this country's education.

Math now involves learning eight different strategies for multiplication or division or whatever else, and their extremely-rigid scripted curriculum requires them to use fun hands-on activities and real-world examples.

One of those ideas is great, but one is not so great.

Young children do NOT need exposure to higher level math. They NEED to get down basic skills to build their foundation for further education and development of your precious critical thinking skills.

Right now they're encouraged to think about all the different ways to do long division. What that means in the real classroom, for the real children, is that they don't actually learn how to do anything for sure. One student in my class does weird, convoluted work when he does math, which makes no sense to the teacher, but he somehow gets the right answer. In ELA, he does some more weird thinking, and almost always it leads him to a wrong answer. He needs to learn one way to do something, and then later, if he wants to, figure out a faster way or a way that's a better fit for his learning style. As it stands, when this child moves on to high school, he's going to be lost when there's only one traditional way to figure out a problem in geometry or trigonometry. There's certainly only one accepted way to spell words; why should he get to be creative in that either? Let him learn to spell and multiply, and then use that knowledge to do something with his well-written words and his grasp of mathematical principles.

Students learning how to think for themselves? No, they can't do that at this point. Yes, that is a very real and scary problem. They most certainly need to develop critical thought.

However, NONE of that will work without a solid foundation of rotely-memorizing things like multiplying 5 times 8 or the difference between 'lose' and 'loose.' You don't build a house made of loose bricks on sand. You build a concrete foundation and mortar the bricks together so the structure will stand firm. And deciphering how deep and how wide that foundation should be...requires, yes, math!

What do other countries do that we don't? They push the students to learn, I mean really learn. They do take exams to prove their knowledge, but they most certainly are not multiple choice exams; monkeys randomly bubbling things could get decent scores by luck. Those countries would not keep lowering the passing score of those difficult tests to make sure that more children have good self-esteem, or to make sure that the schools' asses are covered when the government comes a-knocking.

Their college students also relax their freshman year, but only because it's so easy compared to the rigors of high school. Whereas in our country, people are finally noticing that very few students are able to perform at the college level, in math and writing, and all the other fields that involve math and writing...which is all of them.

And surely you are being facetious when you say that math and science should not be taught, but that students should instead be encouraged to just invent and design things. Without math and science? Engineers, carpenters, electricians, urban planners, and any regular schmoe with a checking account and bills to budget for--all of them need math.

Further, lumping science in with math--for its irrelevance in school--is dangerously ignorant. The fields are very closely related--most of physics and a lot of chemistry is math--but you can't seriously propose that students shouldn't learn science? They shouldn't learn how the world around them works? They shouldn't learn how to think critically about the effects of partially-hydrogenation have on the masses? They shouldn't learn how the human presence destroys natural habitats of too many animal species, and what to do to decrease that impact? Those real-world applications mean nothing until they have learned and completely understood the principles of atoms and molecules, the cycle of life, the food chain, the delicate balance of ecology...Oh wait, some of that involves numbers, which is math, so that must be out as well, Mr. Schank?

When I was in college, taking diverse courses like chemistry, linguistics, a foreign language, psychology, international gender policy, I was constantly amazed and delighted at how often the content would overlap, or that knowledge of one field improved the understand of another, seemingly unrelated field. It made me enjoy learning, it made me look forward to taking more classes, it made me look more in depth at the natural world and the human world. It made me a more well-rounded person.

Sure, some of the higher level math seems pointless to real life. So does the practice of diagramming sentences. I used to groan, "When am I ever going to have to diagram a sentence in life?" Of course the answer is never.

Faced now with students that wouldn't know a direct object if it hit them in the face, I finally understand the purpose of diagramming sentences: I understand how words and language work together. I can construct complex sentences using a variety of words and punctuation. I can get my point across in different forms. I can change my writing to suit my audience, and I can use high level vocabulary if I want. I even get the joke from Mary Poppins: "I met a man with a wooden leg named Smith." "What's the name of his other leg?"

It's a funny joke, and everyone should be able to understand it. I would literally have to explain this to my students, trying to find language basic enough to get them to understand modification and antecedents, when they can barely recognize a verb.

It's the same with math and science. We may never need to use the quadratic formula or sentence diagrams in 'real life,' but that knowledge expands our minds, it gets us ready for higher level work and thought, and most importantly, it makes people well-rounded.

Our country needs to stop alternatively babying and vigorously testing our children. They need to be formally and informally assessed in all their classes. We should teach more subject areas, not fewer. All classes need strict standards to show students that we are serious, that we expect excellence out of them, and that education for education's sake is important. If they can't do the basic work, don't let them proceed until they can. If they don't pass a class, in no way should they ever move to another grade, regardless of their test score.

We need citizens who understand that work will be required of them, as children in school and as adults in the real world. It's no fun preparing marketing data or grading papers, but it needs to be done. That work requires high-level thought, which, again, is only possible when founded on basics. Our schools need to teach basics first, and then work the children up to formal and analytical thought.

Edited to add this, which I'll call 'Exhibit A':

With His Superpowers?

Teacher: When did slavery end?
Student: Didn't it end in like, 1970, when Martin Luther King freed all the blacks?

--Berkeley Carroll School, Park Slope
via Overheard in New York, Dec 21, 2006


NYC Educator said...

I think we also need to be consistent. I'm amazed by all the talk about high standards, and the end of social promotion, while concurrently bringing pressure on teachers to pass 70% of classes (regardless of what kids may or may not have done) and to issue credit for "seat time."

I enjoyed your very thoughtful post,by the way. I think there are other ways of making things interesting for kids, like demonstrating a genuine passion for whatever it is you're teaching.

I grant you that's tough when you're reduced to reading a DoE script.

Jonathan said...

Cool rant. As a minimum, students who can't do much math should be able to tell what seems reasonable and what doesn't, which implies acquiring a whole bunch of basic skills.

We're not in crisis over conic sections (though we could stand with more people learning about them, and more understanding what they are learning).

We are in crisis over long division, multiplication, fractions, decimals, percents.

I just toss the word "ratio" into a problem, and I decrease the number of kids who get it right. Not good.


(Are you in Europe?)

Gary said...

Those of you who debated Roger Shank's article so thoroughly are welcome anytime at the place where the article was originally published, "The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate."

I hope you will join the discussion there.

Editor: The Pulse