I have known for some time that I was not happy with the controversy over mathematics education. I have started to blog about it several times in the past couple of years, yet each time I thought about it, I couldn't specifically articulate my feelings. Perhaps the closest I came was when I reviewed the book Infinitesimal last February. I recently came across a term that helped me frame my concerns: ‘math sense’.
Stanford mathematician Dr. Keith Devlin stated in a recent column in the Huffington Post that: “All the mathematical methods I learned in my university math degree became obsolete in my lifetime.” Why? Because technology will do all the calculations faster and more accurately than can be done by a human. And these days, we probably carry that technology in our pocket. But without the necessary math sense, a person will not even understand what the calculations mean.
Here's the thinking: It doesn’t mean we quit doing basic math, but it also means we need to have a feeling for the numbers. And that is where the so-called ‘discovery math’ comes into play. Using manipulatives, finding alternate paths to the answer, visualizing how graphs relate to formulas, visualizing how graphs are described by predictions, and knowing how to extrapolate and interpolate are crucial skills of the math sense. Some students might develop this sense naturally, but students already struggling to memorize the times tables because they don't see the big picture are not going to be any more successful by doing drill and review practice.
Perhaps math has become politicized in part because of the way new methods of instruction have been introduced to the public. Perhaps if it is simply described as ‘teaching enhanced math sense’ rather than labelling it as ‘new’ or ‘discovery’ or proclaiming it to be an alternative to basic facts, it would be more acceptable to the public.
I hope that when Alberta brings in a new curriculum, they are not retrograde to the interests of our young people and the future world they will enter. If the government bows down to the pressure of those who do not recognize that math is more than rules-based procedures, many of our students will grow up without the math sense necessary in the future.
An Edmonton Journal editorial stated “The discovery approach has no place in arithmetic at the junior elementary level. There is nothing to discover
.” In fact, every child in school has math to discover. Convince our friends and neighbours to support our students learning math with an educational design for the digital age.
One additional comment: teachers, especially at the elementary level, need to have their own math sense. More professional development must be addressed to providing our teachers with the skills not only to teach math sense, but to give parents the confidence that appropriate methods are being used to teach their children 21st century mathematics skills.
Links of interest:
All The Mathematical Methods I Learned In My University Math Degree Became Obsolete In My Lifetime
Infinitesimal: how a dangerous mathematical theory shaped the modern world – a review
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