The *New York Times* published a decent editorial asking a good question: Who says math has to be boring?

Among the dire statistics, we hear "Only 18 percent of American adults can calculate how much a carpet will cost if they know the size of the room and the per square yard price of the carpet." And "The number of students who want to pursue engineering or computer science jobs is actually falling, precipitously, at just the moment when the need for those workers is soaring."

The article lays out the issues nicely but breaks no new ground as the same failed tactics are being promoted as solutions.

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The *Times* blames the usual mixture of "outdated curriculum", "outdated textbooks", "turned off", "teachers without expertise" and so on. They did not explain why the same boring curricula and textbooks produced great engineers and scientists in earlier generations but not in the current generation.

I'm not saying the curriculum should not be improved. As you know, I am very interested in how to make statistics fun to learn. That's why I write this blog and those books. (I also have put a short course online--admittedly, this needs some polish.) While we can improve curriculum and teaching, the missing piece is desire to learn and excel on the part of the student, without which nothing will change. Think about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours to mastery as a metaphor. Why are our children willing to invest 10,000 hours for a sport (or in the gym) but not for math/science?

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The *Times* throws its weight behind the inefficacy of "traditional drills". One must ask why they were effective before and not now. Regardless, this is a common position, that we should teach "real-world modeling" or "real-world problem solving". This point of view manages to look past the obvious--if one cannot do simple algebra, one won't be solving any quantitative problems any time soon.

While I advocate early exposure to case studies and real world problems, these courses must be followed up with courses that impart real technical skills. I haven't heard people complain about rote memory of 'great poems" or even "great lines from movies". Why can't we ask students to recall a few formulas?

(N.B. I am arguing rote learning is not the *cause* of the problem, which is different from arguing that rote learning is the solution.)

Feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

It seems to me that the approach might never have been very effective. Just that it worked (and still works) for a small minority of people, and now we'd like it to work for a larger proportion.

It might be that only 18% can do that particular problem, but maybe that was always so. It seems perfectly reasonable to consider what kinds of teaching would achieve whatever results are deemed to be useful (or otherwise valued), and it seems quite plausible (almost certain) that the appropriate teaching now would differ from that decades ago in various ways.

Posted by: Bruce Stephens | 12/11/2013 at 08:44 AM

I like Dan Meyer's perspective on this.

http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=18278

A perplexing, puzzling lesson is a more important aspect to pay attention to.

Also related is his presentation: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover.html

Posted by: Joe Mako | 12/11/2013 at 10:32 AM

Math is a pain at first, especially with all the equations and letter substitutions. Wished that I was more enthusiastic about it back in school. Could have done me a lot of good because math is everywhere. - Marl of Mymathdone.com

Posted by: Marley Howards | 05/22/2014 at 03:14 AM