The Math Wars: Oh No!

An editorial column in Time Magazine by Claudia Wallis about the emerging Math Wars in this country resonated with me, as our school district is in the midst of this battle raging in the classrooms and in the minds of our students.

Walls notes that, in a move that eerily echoes the whole language-phonics debate of the 1980s, educators and administrators, and government officials, are beginning to toss out the idea of creative and critical mathematical thinking skills (what Wallis calls “fuzzy math”) in favor of more rote learning and memorization of facts. This confusion over direction of a national math curriculum has led textbook publishers to packing their books with tons and tons of learning objectives to be covered over the span of a year … with impossible results for both teachers and students.

In my school district, a group of teachers spent years meeting and discussing and formulating an approach that balanced creative thinking and basic math facts, only to have the central office do a top-down move that is shifting us towards textbook-centered classroom instruction (read this page, do these problems, take this quiz, move on). This shift has not been viewed as positive by many classroom teachers. But the administration is under significant pressure from our state to increase our standardized math scores and they see this as a way to solidify the curriculum across all of our schools.

Wallis urges school districts and teachers to look to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics for guidance. The NCTM has begun issuing some grade-level guidelines for math skills, and they are streamlining expectations so that one year builds upon the next.

“If the script follow the Reading Wars, what comes next will be dreary times-table recitats in unison, dull new text books that faily to inspire understanding, and drill, drill, drill much like the unhappy scenes in many of today’s ‘Reading First’ classrooms . And that would be just another kind of fiasco … Kids will learn their times tables for sure, but they will also learn to hate math.” — Wallis, Time Magazine, November 27, 2006.

Peace (in numbers and words) ,

  1. When will the education pendulum begin to swing back toward reason? Not for a while, it appears. There is such a disconnect between this crazy standardized testing accountability and the skills our students will need to compete in a global marketplace. I read an interesting piece at NPR this week about young Japanese men who are dropping out of their society because they seem no place for themselves. Many of them are creative individuals who don’t fit the mold of business success. One sentence jumped off the screen at me: “[Japan’s] educational system, which emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking, is being questioned as never before. Young people now sense that the old rules don’t work in a global age.”
    And to think that this is the country we were in such a hurry to emulate not too many years ago, as we believed they had all the answers.

  2. Hi Connie
    Reason? It often seems as if educational policy is rooted less in reason than in knee-jerk reaction. I agree that creative thinking is a key to anyone’s success, personally, professionally, whatever, and that we should be teaching critical thinking skills to our students.
    Thanks for the link to the NPR story. I will give it a listen.
    Take care,

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