Monday, April 16, 2012

Education Rant...

 I'm not in the math education loop, but as someone who was a guinea pig (victim?) of the "new math" movement of the 1960s I'm still interested in the debate that swirls around the topic of effective math teaching, especially with so many young people turned off by math at an early age. In that regard 'Wild About Math' blog recently ran a podcast with the founders of "Imagine Education" and their story-telling approach to math education. It's an attempt to make math less of an abstract or cerebral exercise, and more of a tool with direct application to daily life; an approach many favor.

I'm not convinced there is any one "best" approach to teaching math, at least not for all students (some students seem to have a natural interest in, and knack for math almost regardless of approach, while others may be dragged along kicking and screaming no matter what the format). Still, I very much enjoy seeing all these creative, digital approaches as options in the marketplace of math education. One hopes the cream (of techniques) will rise to the top. My one concern is that a method which coaxes in the greatest number of individuals to some basic level of math literacy, may not be the same as an approach that best encourages those already exhibiting an aptitude for math speedily along their way. Having so many options available for home or independent self-paced study is a wonderful thing though.

In that regard, I've long been a fan of Khan Academy as an innovator in this whole arena. After so much attention early on, Khan, is now (as often happens) being viewed more critically by many, almost in a backlash fashion. I think too often critics look at Khan Academy as some finished product full of flaws, even though it seems better viewed as a start and a work-in-progress -- the Khan Academy of 10 years from now might differ significantly from the current version. I happen to believe it's headed in the right direction regardless of imperfections. Moreover, I can't help but think some of the harshest critics of the Academy are simply in fear over their own livelihoods… the advent of Khan-like offerings could in the long run reduce significantly the number of not-only math teachers needed around the country, but instructors of a great many other subjects as well.

Even at the college-level I envision a distant future where students no longer matriculate at a lone university, but choose from a smorgasbord of offerings from the very best instructors in the country over the Net: a math course from a professor at MIT, a physics course from Stanford, an English course from Yale, etc. etc. Indeed, from a strictly economic view it is hugely inefficient that every college (or even high school) must so often duplicate the course offerings of every other one down the block. Just as brick-and-mortar retail establishments have suffered mightily with the advent of the Web, I suspect many brick-and-mortar education establishments too will fade with time. The day is approaching where a person sitting in a room in Kalamazoo, Michigan will have access to the same education as someone sitting in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Where I live, 3 prominent Universities within 30 minutes of each other of course all have full-scale English Depts., Biology Depts., Math Depts., etc. etc. -- simply put, I don't think that will be economically sustainable in the future (and yes, it will be at the cost of a great many teaching jobs). I know this is not a popular view, and again, I'm somewhat shooting-from-the-hip since I'm not in the trenches of education myself, so am interested to hear the full range of opinions that are out there.

In my own case, I've always suspected that my personal math future was torpedoed in college by a certain college math professor who was quite simply miserable, and have wondered what the future might've been if only I'd not had that one instructor (or if, in addition to him, I'd had today's digital resources). The simple fact is that the very best math teachers, like the best of anything, are few-and-far-between, and yet we're headed toward a day when most students, wherever they are, will be able, potentially, to access them.
Anyway, interesting times ahead for higher education....


Sue VanHattum said...

>I can't help but think some of the harshest critics of the Academy are simply in fear over their own livelihoods.

The critiques I've read have been by people who'd like to see students engage in math in new ways. I have not seen anything like what you imply here. Wanna point me?

I point my students to Khan Academy once in a while, and many of them like it. I don't care for his lecture style, nor for the badges. But I'll point my students to anything they might find helpful. I much prefer James Tanton, but of course he doesn't have the volume of topics Khan does.

"Shecky Riemann" said...

Hi Sue, I've read a lot of commentary about Khan over the last couple months, most of which I think pretty fairly discuss both positive and negative aspects of the Academy. I won't try to re-find the few that I thought sounded overly-critical and defensive on the subject, but there were a couple (even if I remembered who they were, I probably wouldn't single them out by name here -- and as I so indicated I actually think any fears of job loss are justified over the long term; it's just not something that will happen right away.