Too Many Ideas

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2014-04-22 – I’ve been going through old papers and found a book proposal I put together maybe 10 years ago. It was for a book I wanted to title Do The Math! Why Johnny Can’t Add And What To Do About It. What do you think? Is it worth resurrecting this idea? (Believe me, if it’s not this idea, there are many more where this one came from.)

Do the Math!

Imagine you had been taught to read in the same way you were taught math . . .

. . . U’d have uh reele hard tym undurstandeeng wuht eye have to tel u. U myt mak it owt if u tryd reelee hard, but thuh effert wudn’t sem wurth it. If sumwun handed u a buk or magazeen, u’d thro it intu thuh ahl-du-that-latr pyl—and u’d nevr get tu it—evn if it wuz reelee important. Or u’d hav tu hyr sumwun tu help u mak it owt.

That’s the way we react to math, because no one knows how to teach it. There have been scores of approaches, sure, and thousands of dedicated and effective teachers. But no on, until now, has applied the ideas that made it possible for you to learn to read to math.

Think about it. When you were learning to read, reading was everywhere. Reading was part of science and music and art and social studies—and even math. What’s more, your parents were exhorted to read to you and to get you a library card. And they did it, too.

Not too many kids are mathed to at bedtime.

This kind of immersion needs to happen to make math teaching effective. It doesn’t occur today, but it could. Do The Math! proposes a revolutionary change of philosophy about math education that will turn out kids who are not afraid of math—and competent to use math to solve life’s problems. But more than philosophy, Do The Math! lays out concrete steps that schools could adopt to get out of this perpetual doldrum:

  • It surveys adult life to scope out the types of problems people use math to solve—in real life—as a basis for developing a reality-based curriculum for math instruction.
  • It proposes building real-life, hands-dirty problem solving into the math curriculum.
  • It introduces the concept of math calisthenics as a solution for the problem of rote memorization that teachers often avoid.
  • It proposes ways of getting the whole teaching staff on board by building a sample curriculum of math topics that can be integrated in English, social studies, science, music, and art classes.
  • It challenges parents to provide support for math teaching by helping their kids directly, like they help them with reading, and by working with schools to make the changes proposed in this book come about.

The consequences of poor math teaching are far reaching. The results of a recent international study indicate that, while US students do okay with standard math drills, they fall way behind students in other countries when it comes to actually using the knowledge for practical purposes.

If the United States hopes to be competitive in the world, we’re going to have to focus on what makes literacy so widespread and what makes math skills so rare.

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