Friday, November 9, 2007

Are You Good at Non-Math?

One of the most persistent issues in math education has been the reliance on non-mathematical explanations of mathematical principles. For example, we tell students that when multiplying positive and negative numbers “two negatives make a positive.” Such an explanation clarifies nothing about how the numbers behave or why an ostensibly English grammar rule should apply to math.

What is worse, we tell students who successfully master such non-math explanations that they understand math, or that they are good at math, when really what they are good at is non-math. Young children have no way to distinguish non-math from math. They believe, because we have told them, that they are learning math, when in fact they are learning non-math. If it does not catch up to them earlier, it often catches up to them in algebra class where historically “A” students may find themselves inexplicably failing to understand the subject material.

Children rely on adult teachers to initiate them into the joys and delights of math, but often teachers make math a difficult subject, usually because they themselves understand non-math rather than math. After all, if numbers are running around, it must be math, right? Even sadder are the number of elementary teachers who lack an interest in acquiring what math education researcher Liping Ma called “the profound understand of fundamental mathematics” even while believing that they “know” math.

Many colleges of education and community colleges have sought to address the serious weaknesses in the mathematical understanding of elementary teachers by either requiring, or at least offering, coursework in mathematics for elementary teachers. I am quite sure a survey of professors teaching such required courses would report remarkable levels of student resentment at being forced to take a class in something they think they already know, to “jump hoops” as they say . Some of these students may wake up and get motivated to learn the math concepts. Some seethe inwardly as they pass the class. However, most students will pass the class and eventually be certified to teach regardless of their attitude toward or understanding of the vital core subject of mathematics.

Only later, once they are in the classroom, will they be likely to regret the squandered opportunity to finally get math. They may grow to appreciate the professor who tried to give them the gift of mathematical understanding, a gift they resisted at the time.

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