Tuesday 5 May 2015

Lockhart's lament

Dau.II's bloke, W(II)ld, half of the frighteningly talented W!ld, hasn't gone One Direction on the music front yet, so he's gone to college to develop another talent - programming computers. He's one of those mature students that every teacher wants to have in class: he has a good idea of why he's in college, heck he wants to be in college, he does the assignments and hands them up on time, he doesn't dick about with his phone in the back of class, he asks interesting questions because he wants to know more.  He handed up a maths paper in the last week of the teaching term and the instructor handed it back almost immediately with Distinction written across the top. I spent much of Friday marking the final assignments of my two Yr1 Quantitative Methods classes and the results went the whole alphabet from ace to woeful.  I think QM is my least favorite class because there is so much math-anxiety about that it is distressing to be in the same room - it's like the pheromones of terror.  Why the anxiety?  Because the standard of math teaching in Ireland, not to mention the curriculum, is bloody awful.  In primary school, maths is assigned to the class teacher who does all the instruction and is much more likely to have been in the Arts Block in college. Even in primary school, there is a government imposed curriculum, so that no child gets left behind . . . and everyone gets the same opportunities. Each year the whole class has to have learned XYZ, so that they are ready for αβγ the following year.  If the teacher suffers from math-anxiety, this is all going to go down in a gallop of rote-learning and tedious repetitive exercises. By year 2, the stuffing will have been knocked out of 80% of the class and they will think of maths as series of neat tricks, weird rules and fatuous attempts to 'integrate' the maths with language and other aspects of the curriculum:
Attempts to present mathematics as relevant to daily life inevitably appear forced and contrived:“You see kids, if you know algebra then you can figure out how old Maria is if we know that she is two years older than twice her age seven years ago!”(As if anyone would ever have access to that ridiculous kind of information,and not her age.)
I couldn't have said it better myself, so I have clipped that sentence out of A Mathematician's Lament by Paul Lockhart which has been circulating samizdat since about 2002 but doesn't seem to have made much impact where it matters - the curriculum development office of the Department of Education wherever you live for starters.  It is quite a long paper, and if you suffer from math anxiety yourself, you'll not want to read it . . . but you should.  If you only have 3.5 minutes then you should try the promo video for his book of the essay, called Measurement and published by Harvard UP.  If you want a solution to the conundrum posed by Lockhart in the video, check out the comments section of the re-churn on i09.com. That also sources a trib from one who has sat at the feet of the master: Paul was the best high school math teacher I had. The course was called ‘what is math?” And he taught us how to play go, why we may be living in our own flatland, and how most math class’s are the equivelant of paint by numbers. A brilliant guy. If you want reasons not to read/buy the book try it reviewed here by a SatNav robot.

Lockhart has a PhD (1990) in mathematics from Columbia and a remarkably low Erdos number.  He taught math in UCSC, Brown and other universities before jacking it all in to go teach in a K-12 school in Brooklyn, NYC.  He is surely the teacher each of us wishes we'd had.

Which brings me back to W(II)ld and his enthusiasm for maths. You might think this is doubly remarkable if I point out that he educated himself at home K-12 just like Dau.II.  But of course it's not: his intrinsic, innate interest in maths - which might be defined as finding beautiful patterns in the world - was never imposed on him as a series of rules, tricks and irrelevancies. When I was in school, I was biddable and institutionalised, so I was rather good at maths-as-she-is-taught. I did "A"-level maths indeed as part of my high-school graduation. I could do The Calculus - differentiation and integrating the area under whatever curve you could draw.  I did well in the exam because I learned most of the tricks. We all did more Calculus in college - pretty much the same as the "A" level, so that was a doddle.  But I'll tell ya this: in nearly 40 years of teaching and research in science; writing thousands of lines of code; analysing genome sequences; mapping genetic data across chunks of the planet; I've never, ever, had call for using any of the tricks and algorithms of The Calculus.  Why this should be a required skill taught to every science student is a mystery to Dr Lockhart . . . and to me.

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