Tuesday, January 25, 2011


A couple of education questions:

Thongor! asks,

What are your thoughts on K-12 math education in the United States?
This is something I think about quite a lot as I not only have children, a deep passion for science and science education, but am working with a colleague who is a science and math education researcher on a project at the moment. All of the measurable markers with respect to K-12 math education in the US indicate a system that is broken. Why is this?

I think there are three reasons. First, while there are some very talented and committed high school math teachers out there (some of my former students of whom I am the most proud of are math and science teachers), in general, education, especially secondary education, fails to attract the most qualified people in our society. We pay our teachers terribly and we give them no social status, so those who can get better paying and more prestigious jobs tend to. Those who major or minor in education often do so as a fall back choice in college. It is often people who think it is a safe choice and love children, but not necessarily those for whom mathematics is something they love and understand well. Elementary school mathematics is taught by those who do not specialize in math education and so we set our children off on the wrong foot.

In many cases, we then set up mathematics learning in large classrooms where students learn at different speeds, but are all given the same instruction on the same time line. We think that testing makes students learn better. We give them far too little in terms of resources.

And then we send them home to parents who are themselves undereducated in mathematics and are either mathphobic or care little about the field. We certainly cannot put the blame solely in the classroom. This is a larger cultural problem.

There is actually very good work going on in the study of mathematical pedagogy. The problem is that to change the system to use these new and more effective techniques, it takes money and political will. More money requires taxes to be spent and we couldn't possibly do that to improve our children and thereby our society more generally. The phrase "new math" has roughly the same meaning as "new Coke." Adjustments to math education have been poisoned in the cultural mind by perceptions of past efforts.

As many, most famously John Allen Paulos, has shown, there is large scale innumeracy in American culture and it has negative consequences. How do we change it? Heck if I know.

bonny asks,
What are the advantages and disadvantages in a liberal arts education?
The advantage of a liberal arts education is that it provides the student with a flexible mind capable of solving problems and making meaning in multiple ways. It helps facilitate the development of an intellect that finds connections. Instead of intellectual vo-tech training, the focus is on development as an intellectual, something that I believe helps round and fill out one's life as a human.

The disadvantage is that it is incredibly resource intensive and therefore inaccessible to most. As a result, those who seek out and secure a liberal arts education tend to be surrounded with like souls. It is something that entrenches certain social divisions, which is unfortunate.