Sunday, March 25, 2012

Math Failure; The Missing Tool

“A lie can be halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”  Mark Twain

Math Failure;  The Missing Tool

Carpenters put on their pouch carrying a measuring tape, square, chalk line, chisel, hammer, and more.  All of these are now ready to use.  Sometimes the most needed tool is math.
Concrete has to be ordered in cubic yards.  Roofing is measured by the square.  Finished flooring is bought by the lineal foot, square foot, or square yard.  All of the bills are paid with dollars and cents.
Missing math skills are not only seen in construction.  Large and small businesses across the country find it difficult to fill positions with qualified people.  This, in spite of 9% unemployment.
Why isn’t the tool of math at the ready?  The simple reason is that math, as it is currently taught, seems irrelevant to large numbers of kids.  They are not interested and, therefore, not motivated to learn. 
Students are bad at math.  Approximately one out of every two high school graduates isn’t proficient in grade-level math.  The United States ranks among the lower one third when considering international math testing.  This sounds like an epidemic.
Across the United States, standardized math test scores are generally disappointing, and in too many cases, alarming.  But this has been true a long time.  The product of this situation is a marginally competent student population and equally poorly trained adults.  This inertia needs to be displaced.
School administrations and curriculum writers debate like vipers.  Arguments over Traditional vs. Reform vs. New math curricula are waged.  This, too, has gone on for years.
Continual attempts are made to systematize math education.  These attempts make the assumption that all teachers should, and are able to, teach in a generic fashion.  Also assumed is that all students will learn exactly what is taught at the necessary pace using a rigid format.
With federal and state curricula becoming more structured and nearly impossible in their demands, much of teachers’ creativity will be lost.  This breeds teacher overwhelm and apathy.  Students are bored.  Bored students don’t learn.  Remember those test scores?
Longer school days and a longer school year are suggested.  A different textbook, an iPhone application, and budgetary threats are recommended to improve our faltering math education.  Student motivation is often the limiting factor.
Perhaps we should focus on making math relevant and more interesting to students.  What fascinates them?  Odds are, many of their pastimes involve math.
Music?  Sports?  Travel?  Math is relevant to portions of each of these pursuits.  The lessons must be integrated with the students’ interest.  Failing this, we see student disinterest.  Cramming lessons down their throats hasn’t worked.  Why not try something else?
After some student successes in their areas of interest, a teacher can easily demonstrate how the same techniques of math can be applied to other fields of study.  This fosters creativity and allows many styles of teaching, thinking, and learning to participate.
Math associated with a student’s genuine interests and the techniques of problem solving should be the emphasis.  Problem solving, a lifelong endeavor, is not a matter of logical deductions from memorized formulas, but a cultivated ability to use one’s imagination.  Math lessons must stop stifling a student’s education.
At least part of the motivation for this, and many articles, is anger.  It is distressing to have agreement on the enormity of our collective problems with math as is stated by educators, standardized testing results, employers, and authors.  It’s even more exasperating because we are pummeled with statistics, on-the-job problems, and depend upon math and yet seem so indifferent to actually improving our situation. 

Alan Cook is part-time faculty at College of the Redwoods, co-owner of Solar Hot Water Plus in Arcata and author of A Trip To The Number Yard;  A Fun and Easy Guide to the Math You Need for Construction.