Sunday, March 1, 2009

Why More Mathematicians Don't Oppose Reform Math: and why we desperately need them to

Yesterday's NPR Weekend Edition Saturday featured an interview with Stanford University professor Keith Devlin on the importance of Algebra, and while I listened to it, it suddenly occured to me why more mathematicians don't oppose Reform Math.

Here's what I posted on the NPR website:

Keith Devlin suggests that, given calculators, students should focus less on accurate arithmetic calculations, and more on algebraic reasoning. But, as Devlin's fellow mathematicians (e.g., Howe, Klein, & Milgram) have argued, mastering the basic algorithms of arithmetic is essential preparation for algebra. And while the most mathematically inclined students--including Devlin himself--may be able to master these algorithms without much hands-on, numerical practice, the vast majority do need lots of practice, and striving for correct answers is an essential part of that practice.

Today's arithmetic, unfortunately, has been seriously watered down by the new "Reform Math". More mathematicians need to examine this curriculum and speak out against it; ironically, because they can get by without much arithmetic practice, and because so many of them found arithmetic boring, too few mathematicians have considered the potentially dire consequences that the latest trends in grade school math present to the rest of the population (and to the country as a whole).

When our most prominent, accomplished mathematicians, who themselves may well have gotten by without developing accurate arithmetic skills, discount the importance of teaching such skills to the general population, they do a terrible disservice to elementary school math education (and may themselves be horrified by the results, years later, when today's grade school students enter their classrooms).

Consider what one other NPR poster has taken away from the Devlin interview. As she writes in her post:

I want to thank Dr. Devlin for a great quote that I plan to post at the front of my classroom. “Mathematicians often make mistakes in elementary arithmetic because we have our minds on higher things." That will come in very handy!

No comments: