Friday, May 24, 2013

Uri Treisman's Wish

Uri Trieisman gave the Iris Carl equity speech in Denver. Dan Meyer summarized it  in detail and recommended it highly, so I listened to it online. I thought the speech was well delivered and the reviews were mostly positive by those who replied to Dan's blog. 

Uri's main message was that poverty sucks. He shows this powerful image that highlights the correlation between poverty concentration and percentage meeting SAT criterion. Sad message indeed.

The most interesting quote for me was "What is the determinant of whether you have a high skill job in the US? Overwhelmingly it's mathematics. The single biggest factor in upward social and economic mobility. It's our beloved subject. It would be wonderful if it were music instead of math. Think how great the country would be if everyone was striving to learn to play an instrument instead of factor quadratic equations. But the fact is it is our discipline that's the primary determinant."

This begs the question whether Uri would actually promote music education over math education if our discipline was not the primary determinate. I doubt it. The reason math is the main determinate is because math educators like Uri Treisman work very hard at convincing the public that math education is important enough so it should be the determinator. Personally, I think a more user friendly approach to math education is needed. Particularly for Algebra. Students need more choices and Algebra as the main staple needs an overhaul. 

Andrew Hacker's New York Times article "Is Algebra Necessary?" last summer brought this issue to the forefront. I would have preferred a different title: "Should Algebra in its present form be required of all students?" which would have helped to refocus the reactions away from getting rid of algebra altogether which of course is absurd. There were 477 comments mostly by math educators who were outraged at the thought of not requiring Algebra for all as if Algebra was the only elixir for cognitive health. 

Unfortunately Algebra for the most part will be taught in same dull way it always has. Economically advantaged students will get the best teachers and do well and poverty will continue to undermine the learning of this subject that most students and adults find/found to be too difficult and unproductive. That doesn't mean there are not empowered individuals like Dan and Karim Ani ( that are finding ways to make math more palatable for students via teachers which for the most part are not working in high poverty area schools. We need to rethink how algebra is taught to the masses. My recommendation is to teach math from the "outside in;" start with activities (i.e. problems/puzzles/games) that interest the kids and then show how the algebra relates to these activities. Karim and Dan are doing this. But until the textbook publishers stop publishing pablum math, most students won't benefit from what Dan, Karim and other reformers are offering.

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  1. Hi Ihor,
    I also have been saying this about algebra and how it is taught. Our elementary students compare favorably with international students, but once they reach the "algebra" of middle school, our students begin a fast drop.
    So, how do most people address this problem? They suggest we better prepare our elementary students for algebra. If our elementary students are already doing well, how can it be that we need to change the elementary curriculum?
    The other possibility is that we are teaching algebra in a way that does not utilize what the elementary students already know. We need to change how we teach algebra, not mess with the success of the elementary students.
    Math is fun. Algebra could be fun as well.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Virgil. Yes, indeed, Algebra can be more fun and interesting for the kids. My favorite activity is what I call the Famous Jinx Puzzle which I wrote about in my other blog.