June 28, 2005


Yikes. Diane Ravitch is none too keen on a trend of late—namely, politics seeping into mathematics:
Partisans of social-justice mathematics advocate an explicitly political agenda in the classroom. A new textbook, "Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers," shows how problem solving, ethnomathematics and political action can be merged. Among its topics are: "Sweatshop Accounting," with units on poverty, globalization and the unequal distribution of wealth. Another topic, drawn directly from ethnomathematics, is "Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood." …. The theory behind the book is that "teaching math in a neutral manner is not possible." Teachers are supposed to vary the teaching of mathematics in relation to their students' race, sex, ethnicity and community.
Huh. Well, I don't have any trouble with elementary kids teaching about sweatshops, poverty, and unequal distribution of wealth—the earlier the better! On the other hand, I'm not convinced that there's any better way to teach mathematics than just drill numbers and rules into your students' heads, the strict, boring, and wholly unethnic way. Anecdotally, this seems true, and yes, even of minorities—an ex-girlfriend of mine was a fourth grade teacher in a poor, all-minority school in Redwood City this past year, and she taught multiplication via the old-fashioned method, with a "finish 60 problems in 60 seconds" drill (and you have to keep taking the test over and over until you can finish; drudgery!), which seemed to work very well. But I'd be curious to hear evidence to the contrary. (By the way, nothing breaks my heart like the phrase, "As long as kids know how to use a calculator, they're fine.")

One thing I don't think is so silly, though, is the whole self-esteem factor. For some odd reason, people who struggle with math often say, "I'm just not a math person"—something you never hear with any other academic skill. ("I'm just not a writing person"? "I'm just not a reading comprehension person"?) That ain't right! So something like "Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood" seems, at least on the surface, like a perfectly good use of time and resources.
-- Brad Plumer 1:47 PM || ||