Nicolas Kristof, American Math, and Why We’re Panicking about the Wrong Thing


If our goal was to create a teaching method to actively dissuade students from pursuing math, we couldn’t do better than our current system.

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By now, many people have decided to either completely embrace or totally reject Nicolas Kristof’s recent OpEd in The New York Times.

Libby Nelson has a good reply in Vox here.

If you don’t want to read them both: Nicolas Kristof states that American students are terrible at math, and he supplies questions from international tests as proof. On these questions, American students did worse than students from third-world countries that we feel superior to, not just in terms of education but in most things.

Libby Nelson’s reply is that Kristof is basically correct, but that he cherry-picked questions that make American students look worse than they are, and that on some of these tests, American students perform slightly above average in comparison with the rest of the world.

Nelson then states that Americans tend to do worse on tests, such as the excitingly titled Program for International Student Assessment (or PISA), that force them to apply their knowledge to real-world situations. In fact, Nelson notes, the questions Kristof uses in his article are ones that forced students to apply their knowledge to real-world situations. And since that’s not how we teach in this country, we’re not as bad off as Kristof says.

And this is where I feel we, as Americans, should panic.

At the very least we should wonder what type of math education we’ve created if the result is that our students are OK at math, just not when they need to use it in the real world. It’s like saying, “our vocabulary system is great. It teaches children a lot of words; they just can’t use any of them in a sentence.”

This method of teaching is insane. Obviously from a usage viewpoint it’s awful, but more than that, this method of teaching actively turns students off to math. If you want to make a topic interesting for anyone, show him or her how it relates to the real world. If you want to watch their eyes glaze over, teach them material in the abstract. When I teach kids who love sports percents, I teach them how to find won-loss percentages and batting averages. If a student loves food, I teach ratios using recipes. It makes the topic interesting, and as a result students understand it easier and remember it.

If our goal was to create a teaching method to actively dissuade students from pursuing math, we couldn’t do much better than our current system.

This is not rocket-science; it’s basic teaching. It’s time we stop scratching our heads and wondering why American students perform poorly on international tests. It’s time we adjust our teaching curriculum and methods so students can learn and use what we teach. Surely, that’s not too much to ask.

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