On Not Teaching Mathematics

March 26, 2010

A huge thank you to Jade, who referred me to this compelling argument for not teaching mathematics (or teaching less mathematics, or teaching it in a different way).

Should we, as Gray argues in the link, dispose with the teaching of mathematics in elementary schools? Sadly, it would probably be a positive step. What I’d prefer to see, of course, is teachers who enjoyed and understood mathematics and could pass it on to their students.

But at the moment, as Paul Lockhart so eloquently argues (and congratulations, Paul!), the situation is pretty bleak, and the desiccated body that passes for mathematics in some (most? virtually all?) schools needs to be scrapped. It’s like there’s a hack doctor claiming everyone needs more medical intervention, and we get sicker after each unnecessary surgery. The first rule of education should be Hippocratic: first, do no harm. There are a lot of things we need to stop doing in schools, and especially in math education, and probably the harm that we’re doing is greater than the good.

As Rousseau put it:

“The training of children is a profession,
where we must know how to waste time in order to save it
. “

But that’s not really the end for me. I’ve been struggling with this for a long time, and I guarantee we’ll never see wide scale setting aside of math, and that’s not really the answer anyway. The answer is to teach relevant, appropriate, interesting math with kids and not worry so much about the rote mechanics till later. A real mathematics foundation is about courage, curiosity, finding and owning the discoveries and connections. It’s about love (thus, the name of this blog).

One of my hats, as a matter of fact, is teacher of future teachers, and starting Monday I’ll be co-teaching a math course for future elementary teachers. And I will tell you that most elementary teachers do not much care for math. However, they want to do right by their students, and once they start getting to have a real relationship with math, they take to it. My goal is to have all of these teachers realize that they don’t need to cram stuff down their students throats (as it was once crammed for them), and that there’s a way to play, have fun, and discover naturally… and that everyone ends up learning more this way anyway.

Were the students under Benezet really not doing any math? They were just avoiding the hateful stuff of math. They were thinking, which is where the real stuff of math is. It’s a huge lesson.

Incidentally, I’m reading What’s Math Got to do with It, by Jo Boaler at the moment. I’ll have a proper review here eventually, but so far I’m very impressed with it as a primer for parents and teachers. We’ll be reading it for class. Updates to follow!

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