Sunday, July 29, 2012

Algebra... Who Needs It!

(pic via Wikimedia Commons)

The NY Times adds to the fray over math education here; specifically, the usefulness of "algebra":

Some excerpts therefrom: 
"There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong — unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic."

"Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources."

"Nor is it clear that the math we learn in the classroom has any relation to the quantitative reasoning we need on the job."

"Instead of investing so much of our academic energy in a subject that blocks further attainment for much of our population, I propose that we start thinking about alternatives. Thus mathematics teachers at every level could create exciting courses in what I call 'citizen statistics'... it would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives."

"The aim would be to treat mathematics as a liberal art, making it as accessible and welcoming as sculpture or ballet. If we rethink how the discipline is conceived, word will get around and math enrollments are bound to rise. It can only help."
I don't agree with much of the article, but if it's in the Times it will get some conversation going (I suspect one could generate some similarly-framed arguments on why taking 4 years of high school English is a waste of students' time, let alone reading Shakespeare or other literature "classics"); still, the underlying impetus for reforming math education, to one degree or another, will garner much agreement.

Indeed, "MathBabe" quickly responded to the article at her own blog (and is drawing a lot of further comments) here: 

Towards the end she writes thusly:
"Finally, I’d say this (and I’m stealing this from my friend Kiri, a principal of a high school for girls in math and science): nobody ever brags about not knowing how to read, but people brag all the time about not knowing how to do math. There’s nothing to be proud of in that, and it’s happening to a large degree because of our culture, not intelligence.
So no, let’s not remove mathematical literacy as a requirement for college graduates, but let’s think about what we can do to make the path reasonable and relevant while staying rigorous."
 Amen to that....

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