Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Problem with Elementary Math Teaching

During all my life I have been mostly a self-taught student, so I don't have many memories of earlier instructors. There were exceptions however, teachers that clearly had an impact on my learning.

I was lucky to have had an exceptional math teacher in elementary school, Professor Thales. He was not funny. He was not especially patient with slackness. His exams were tough, and we had to work hard on home assignments. But he taught exclusively math. He was passionate about it, and his classes were precise, clear and straightforward. His teaching was based on strict logical reasoning. From him you would expect no nonsense, no condescension, no wasted effort, no paternalism. More than anything, he would never lower the bar.

I was lucky to have had in the seventies in Brazil good math education provided yet in the traditional Catholic mold, before the entire Brazilian educational system was poisoned by Marxist pedagogy. It was therefore with interest that I've read an article in the "American Educator" by Hung-Hsi Wu that proposes a math teaching model for the US that resembles the one that I was lucky to enjoy while young in Brazil. According to Wu:
Given that there are over 2 million elementary teachers, the problem of raising the mathematical proficiency of all elementary teachers is so enormous as to be beyond comprehension. A viable alternative is to produce a much smaller corps of mathematics teachers with strong content knowledge who would be solely in charge of teaching mathematics at least beginning with grade 4. ... Indeed, this is an idea that each state should seriously consider because, for the time being, there seems to be no other way of providing our children with a proper foundation for mathematics learning.
We have neglected far too long the teaching of mathematics in elementary school. The notion that "all you have to do is add, subtract, multiply, and divide" is hopelessly outdated. We owe it to our children to adequately prepare them for the technological society they live in, and we have to start doing that in elementary school. We must teach them mathematics the right way, and the only way to achieve this goal is to create a corps of teachers who have the requisite knowledge to get it done.


Joseph said...

I'm starting to feel like the twenty-somethings in the USA are going to be the "lost generation" in terms of math knowledge. The cute experiments have failed and now there are tons of young adults learning math the hard way -- doing it on the job with no help.

Thankfully I've been blessed with the ability to understand math quickly, but that was no thanks to the timid, "well at least you tried" sort of teaching that I was subjected to in grades 1-12.

Chase March said...

I agree.

I had a great professor in teachers college who taught us math. He had us doing problems and working in groups to solve things each and every day.

I remember some of my classmates and would be teachers, complaining that he wasn't teaching us how to teach math. They didn't want to do math all day long, they just wanted some strategies to teach it.

But this professor was brilliant. He realized that we can't teach math unless we know how to do it.

As a teacher myself, I try to show a passion for math to inspire my students. Teachers can't be afraid of math or we pass that on to the students.

Perhaps we need specialist teachers in primary school to solve this problem. I think every school should have a dedicated music teacher. I never thought about having a dedicated math teacher. But it sounds like a great idea.

Chase March said...

Oops, I forgot to subscribe to get the follow up comments by email.

I'm interested to see how other people feel about this topic.

Joseph said...


I sort of agree with the students in your example. I hate group work and see no reason to work in groups unless the task at hand has to be divided up. It doesn't sound like part of the grade in that class was based on group work, which is okay, as long as it is optional. But when I get assigned to a group for a graded project I know that part of MY grade is based on the ability of my peers. I, frankly, find that unfair.