Back-To-Basics Mathematics Movement: Re-Imagining The Classroom as a Sweatshop with Victorian Swagger.
October has been a bountiful harvest of some amazing mathematical experiences/memories. I was in New York for the launch of Global Math Week and gave a 5 minute IGNITE Talk with the following title.
Quite unintentionally, this has become my personal narrative in math education. I’ve already gone bust once, so I have developed resilience to see this through to the end.
After New York, I gave keynotes in Georgia and Alberta that surfed this theme of human connection — which is the heart and soul of The Global Math Project. And, just this past week, I spent a whole morning working with some absolutely delightful students and teachers at a school in Massachusetts.
However, while I try to keep both eyes on the positive movements in math education, I feel that I must keep a watchful eye on some of negative movements which are handcuffing the progression of mathematics to this higher purpose. In both the US and Canada, this movement is a false response to the current ideas being adopted in math education. The “Back-to-Basics” movement, in a few short years, has turned the word “discovery” — NOT even used in curriculum documents — into a pejorative, to be hurled like tomatoes at anyone that doesn’t get an erection from long division. Who the hell asks for long division in 2017? It’s the slowest and most painful algorithm to arrive at the correct answer — which really all that it is. Not one kid in the history of education ever has made the connections of division in this schoolhouse procedure. You are better off using a calculator, being done with it, and moving on to the next round of tedium. And, really who would ever care about what 637824 divided by 302 is — unless there is some deeper understanding to unpack. Oh, by the way, that question can be done and understood with 30 M&M candies in grade 3….but, that’s none of my business.
Tara Houle, who I think is in charge of BC Math Education — or, at least, that’s what her Twitter handle tells me — wrote a provocative piece about the woes of contemporary math education. It’s an awesome read. This excerpt could have been written by The Onion staff — how will they solve quadratic equations if they haven’t added fractions??? Did someone order a 25 car pile up?
That’s nothing. When the Globe and Mail published my article about quitting, feeling unhappy with teaching math, and falling destitute, Tara Houle offered this classy response:
If the Back-To-Basics folks were a benign force, I would not be wasting a nickel of my time on them. Unfortunately, they are quite the nasty crew, who don’t want dialogue/discussion — they simply want “rithmetic” reinstalled in all classrooms ASAP. Don’t bother bringing tea and biscuits. They will throw the tea in your face and use the biscuits as future nunchucks.
Dancing backwards on the head-of-a-pin to the most painful polka music, the BTB folks bring the narrowest domain of pedagogy to the table — trumpeting a desire to go back to the most arid mathematical soil. So what has been fertilizing their cause? Fear, political checkers, character assassinations of many outstanding math educators(including James Tanton), and purported elixirs of more testing/memorizing. Throw in some of the most arrogant and dividing voices, and you have something on the order of The Gong Show meets Area 51.
And yes, lots and lots and lots of good ol’ bullshit has fertilized their movement.
No, seriously. They NEVER speak about mathematics in the light of the words below.
I think their word cloud would look something like this:
Maybe others have the patience to drive back and discuss ideas that were rightfully rejected when children — like myself — failed to weave together conceptual fluency with the required factual and procedural fluency.
I don’t. I have just enough time to send them this Molotov cocktail of easy satire — with much love, of course.
I hope this blog gets passed around at their angry meetup in Toronto next month, Research Ed. As their temperatures boil, I will most likely rereading this book:
Now please leave mathematics to those that love the subject and don’t see it as some time spent in math hell just to solve mindless problems with mindless aims. Let me know when you think kids learning game theory and voting mathematics might a good idea in school. You know, to deconstruct unfair lotteries and insurance and understand the conflicts of the mechanics of voting. But, yes, continue pressing kids to learn long division and solve quadratic equations…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz