Saturday, November 19, 2011

Why we can't trust math (and STEM) professors, II

In an earlier post, I list various reasons why we can't trust the math professors on Reform Math. I'm now realizing that I omitted one. Math (and science) professors, as rigorous and analytical as they are within their chosen fields, are perhaps no less credulous than the rest of the public about claims made by "education experts." Two recent articles show two mathematicians and one quantum physicist who have eagerly drunk the edworld Kool-Aid now parotting the usual arguments and buzzwords.

First, a November 11th article in Slate entitled "How to Fix Math Education in High School and College" cites self-styled “mathemagician” Arthur T. Benjamin, who teaches at Harvey Mudd College, on daily life relevance and 21st century skills:

One of the primary problems with math education today, according to Benjamin, is that the sequence of courses leads students in the wrong direction. “For the last 200 years, the mathematics that we’ve learned starts with arithmetic and algebra, and everything we do after that is taking us toward one subject, calculus. I think that is the wrong mathematical goal for 90 percent of our students,” he says. “We’re now living in an age of information and data, and the mathematics that will be most relevant to our daily lives is probability and statistics.”
and on computation undermining rather than supporting conceptual understanding:
Benjamin... hopes that mathematical education will be less about computation—we’ve got calculators for that!—and more conceptual, like “understanding when you need to do integrals, when you need to do a square root.”
Then we have an article in a community newspaper on a public hearing regarding Haverford High School's switch to College Preparatory Mathematics (CPM), a Reform Math algebra and geometry curriculm. Here we have the views of Michelle Francl, a Ph.D. and professor of quantum mechanics at Bryn Mawr College, on what research has shown about cooperative learning:
Michelle Francl... said research has shown that "cooperative learning approaches are significantly more effective than traditional lecture and individual work in student mastery of mathematics, as measured by standardized tests."
And we have Villanova math professor Robert Styer's views on creativity:
[He] noted that industry wants people who can "think creatively and outside the box," and CPM is good for teaching that.
Mathematicians buying into the belief systems of ordinary humans isn't particularly noteworthy... except when those in power use this phenomenon as further justification for those beliefs. For example, Haverford school director Phil Hopkins:
He noted that people supporting CPM were academics, educators and mathematicians, while "those who are objecting are not...I haven't heard anything that would make me say we made a bad choice and need to change."
To be fair, there are plenty of mathematicians (especially those who have kids in Reform Math classrooms and/or who have closely examined Reform Math textbooks) who oppose Reform Math. And, naturally, when these mathematicians speak out against it, they're treated as out-of-touch mathematicians rather than as in-touch, math-aware educators.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

You are painting with a rather broad brush here. There are certainly professors who know nothing outside their field, but there are also plenty who do pay attention to education trends.

I think that you are wrong to consider statistics a less important goal than calculus. It is, in fact, far more important for most people and essential to more STEM fields. Calculus got pride of place because of its essential ties to physics (and thus to mechanical and electrical engineering). Statistics is essential in any empirical discipline, including physics and electrical engineering, but also including people who study large systems that can't be modeled with simple differential equations:biology, anthropology, history, sociology, economics (though economists suffer from the delusion that economies can be so modeled), …

see my post

Disclaimer: I am a STEM professor, with an MS in math and PhD in computer science. I had to learn statistics on my own after having been a professor for several years and was a little irritated that none of my previous education had covered it beyond a middle-school level. I now use statistical concepts far more than I use calculus (and most of the calculus I use is in support of doing more advanced statistics).

Katharine Beals said...

"There are certainly professors who know nothing outside their field, but there are also plenty who do pay attention to education trends."

Never claimed otherwise (pls. read last paragraph).

Of course, some who pay attention to education trends buy into them.

"I think that you are wrong to consider statistics a less important goal than calculus."

Never said that either. My personal belief about statistics vs. calculus (which I didn't discuss in this post) is that everyone should learn statistics (I agree with your reasons, to which I'd add general numeracy), and that all who are capable of it should also learn calculus. That way we maximize utility and minimize premature professional bridge-burning.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I just realized something about 21st century skills.

When I was in High School, I was at an STEM magnet. We had excellent Math and Science. We also had some "21st century skills" type projects. For instance, we spent a lot of time doing presentations in Hypercard, learning to use Dialogue, and using Lynx to search the web.

Three years later, Google was ubiquitous. I still use my math, science, and even history of science. Dialogue and Lynx? yeah, right.

We can't predict what technological changes are coming--- time spent blogging or creating power point slides is wasted. It's better to focus on content, since that DOESN'T change, and new methods are easy to learn.

kcab said...

Have you watched Benjamin's TED talk? You might enjoy it.

I think, it can be difficult to disagree with the goals expressed by education reformers. Differences in opinion between ed experts and math experts are probably better revealed by looking at the actual implementation.

Katharine Beals said...

Deirdre, That's hilarious! I must be older than you, b/c (as far as I can remember!) I've never heard of Dialogue, Power Card, and Lynx. Not only have they completely vanished; it seems they weren't around for that long in the first place.
Kcab, I haven't seen Benjamin's TED talk, but now that you've recommended it, I'll check it out.

kcab said...

Katharine - I just realized that Arthur Benjamin has two TED talks. I was referring to the Mathemagic one, I haven't watched the other.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I disagree somewhat with the statement
"time spent blogging or creating power point slides is wasted."

Learning to use particular tools may be wasted when the tools change, but most time spent on blogging and making presentations is not on learning the tool.

Writing for an audience and presenting to an audience are valuable skills that withstand the test of time better than most content.