COMING TO OUR SENSES

09/15/06

 

            The math wars may be finally over.  The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has apparently come to its senses and issued a report, “Curriculum Focal Points,” which suggests that each school grade focus on the development of specific mathematical skills and the “quick recall” (The search for consensus doesn’t permit them to use the word memorize.) of mathematical facts.  Shortly to be banished to the educationist dust bin, it seems, is the approach to math that posits that there are no right answers in math, that students need not know how to add, subtract, multiply and  divide because they have calculators to perform those calculations.           

            While the report was excellent news to people like me who have argued for years that while we have been talking about raising standards, we have required students to know less and less, the report is silent on the damage inflicted on a generation of young people who have been subjected to the constructivist math that received the imprimatur of the Council in 1989.  I confronted that damage on a recent trip to the drug store to purchase some deodorant.  My experience was funny until I got to thinking of the educational policy issues it raised.  

            Finding the brand of deodorant I wanted and picking up two canisters of it, I went to the check out counter where I was greeted politely by a very well groomed young man of high school age who informed me, “I’m sorry sir.  I can’t help you.  Our computers are down.”  

            When I enquired as to why he couldn’t sell me the deodorant even though the computers were down, it became abundantly clear that adding the price of two canisters of deodorant at $3.38 each was more that he could grapple with.  

            When I insisted that he sell me the deodorant and handed him a ten dollar bill, he looked at me in panic, mumbled something I think I was happy I didn’t understand and finally said, “OK.  That will be ten dollars and sixty-six cents.”  

            Stifling the reflex to laugh, and instantly falling into teacher mode, I said, “Now suppose we round the price of each up to four dollars.  Now we have two at four dollars each.  How much is that?”  

            “That would be eight dollars,” he sheepishly said.  “You old people can do all  that math in your head.  We use computers for everything.”  

            “Don’t you wish you could do it in your head?” I asked.  

            “Yea,” he said, with a look on his face that said he couldn’t even imaging being able to.

            On the brighter side, perhaps the report of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is the beginning of a return to an understanding that students need to know things whether the subject is English, history or math, even though we realize that some of what we teach today will have to be modified by advances in human knowledge. Maybe we are on the verge of closing what E.D. Hirsch has called “the knowledge deficit” that hampers the ability of so many of our students today to even read and comprehend effectively because we have shortchanged them by not providing them with an adequate knowledge base.

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