Sunday, April 26, 2009

Down With Math (Originals)

Down With Math (Originals)

Yes, let me raise a simple question which may point to a partial answer. Why do students seeking certification of their competence in teaching, law, medicine, admission to virtually any higher education, get tested equally on mathematics as on everything else? SAT, GRE and LSAT and similar scores are based on a mandatory evaluation of math skills as as significant as tests of factual knowledge and intellectual skiils. Results in such math tests count for nearly as much as virtually everything else on the exams in which a person needs to perform well in order to snatch one of the glittering shares of the high pile of world money.

But Homo sapiens acquired a portfolio of skills and interests which sustained our economic and social survival in an array of trying and often dire circumstances. We carry these in our heads still. They involve the ability to communicate with others, read their behavior, know how groups work, and track the links between ideas and successful survival action. In all this, the ability to do higher and even modest mathematics could scarcely be more unimportant. We have elevated an arcane and behaviorally limited technical capacity into a robust necessity of daily accomplishment when in fact it is no such thing.

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Has this to do with overestimating the importance of mathematics in the school system? I think so, because our system of educational credentials rewards folks who master technique but not necessarily judgement about its use and its meaning for human lives. Look at it coldly. You will be puzzled by whatever made our system so dependent an arcane technical skill which has proved so difficult for people wielding only judgement to supervise and guide.

Time to think and rethink arithmetic.

I think there's a lot of truth to this. We have become convinced that everyone in every career needs math. But realistically few people use intensive math skills in their jobs, even friends of mine who are accountants and engineers would probably agree. I see that standardized tests like the ACT have very difficult math sections, but the rest of the test is essentially "read the following passage and answer questions about it"- basic reading comprehension. No testing whatsoever of anything taught in history, computers, health, political science, most sciences. No wonder kids aren't interested in studying history- we've convinced them that calculus will serve them so much better. Is it really better for society as a whole to emphasize one particular skill to the detriment of all others? I remember telling a student that math was overrated and she practically went ballistic. Anytime every teen you meet "knows" something is true- like wikipedia is full of lies, math is the most important skill, climate change is a proven fact, McDonalds will kill you, humans shouldn't eat meat- it's a sign to me that some fairly effective societal brainwashing is at play. On a side note I am bemused that so much of education today aims to elicit critical thinking skills from students by asking open ended opinion questions. When students answer, this "critical thought" is instantly acclaimed, far more so than when students diligently master and memorize a body of information. But in my estimation, students are simply regurgitating what they've heard from societal opinion makers- the exact opposite of critical thinking. I also note that the proposed method of "teaching critical thinking" involves asking open ended questions, rather than teaching actual techniques to evaluate sources or debate effectively. I doubt most teachers and administrators really know what "critical thinking" means anyway. If they did, why wouldn't they use their own critical thinking skills to evaluate all the educational pablum that is foisted upon us, like Glasser's multiple intelligences theory, and other educational dogma that passes for "best practices".

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