Thursday, December 23, 2010

Math as a ventriloquist act

Traditional math instruction has convinced the world that math is about manipulating naked numbers quickly on command. For too long, students have been led to believe that math is something you do in isolation of the real world. And so many of us have come to see the best way of doing math is to simply follow the instructions.

It should be no surprise that these kids grow up into adults who perpetuate their own experiences with math on to their own children (or teachers to their students).

Because math was taught at them rather than learned by them, they perceive themselves as masters of the algorithm. Similarly, a ventriloquist's dummy might also perceive itself as a master at talking; however, an observer in the crowd, who has a more sophisticated perspective than the dummy, can easily see who the real master is.

If algorithms are all a learner really knows, it's hard to see math from a more sophisticated perspective. It's not easy to recognize that the algorithms we received through direct instruction are manipulating both the numbers and the learner.


  1. Math instruction is the key battle zone in changing instruction in our schools.

    It is relatively easy to find progressive English teachers (they all want to be in the Dead Poet's Society); or History teachers (they all read "A People's History of the United States"); or even Science teachers (we like to do experiments just as much as the kids do!).

    I've been in many math classrooms in the past 5 years. They are all basically the same. Sure, some are more drill and kill centered than others; some are more lecture and test centered than others; but they all are simply variations on that same theme.

    Math teachers really did their heels in when you try to change instruction. They see math as outside reform. They willingly agree that inquiry is good for kids in science or history. They love to see the projects the kids are doing in English and Art.

    Math is different, though. Math is monolithic and unchanging. Math is above change.

    Part of the problem is that so many adults (as you allude to) fear math. Principals won't tell math teachers how to teach because they too fear math (and math teachers).

    Sometimes I think it'd be fun to teach math, if for no other reason than to turn it on its head and make it problem and project based... and FUN!

  2. OK, math (or maths) was not "taught at them"... an algorithm or, worse, learned response was passed on...
    We need to separate method from process, and also separate mathematics from functional numeracy (being able to work with numbers to an adult level, if you like).
    Those who claim to be teaching mathematics and "dig in their heels" are probably passers-on of something they think is mathematics, rather than "pay-it-forward" types... ;-)