I recently reread Rick Hess’s book The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas. In it Hess argues that “most of today’s reforms thought to be cutting-edge – merit pay, charter schools, extended school days and years, Teach For America – aren’t really cutting-edge at all. And in the long haul, most aren’t likely to result in significant change.” Also he says that “…most of our current strategies to get better teachers into classrooms, including alternative certification, are essentially just “throwing thimbles of water into a river” – which is a slightly more polite way of saying they’re totally inconsequential.”
Why? Because, Hess says, we aren’t willing to start from scratch in our thinking about what it means to be a teacher in the twenty-first century.
Of course in “starting from scratch in our thinking” is something that is tried frequently but always fails because the obstacles to real change (or common sense change in contrast to status quo change as Hess puts it) are so difficult, if not impossible. On my wish list of difficult/impossible, but transformative reforms is something that at its core makes sense to everyone involved that's interested in math education reform.
My version of common sense reform is much “simpler” than what Rick writes about. It’s about dramatically improving curriculum materials for students. Isn’t it possible to create programs of study that students would actually enjoy reading? My current list of math books that I’m enjoying reading (and some re-reading) are:
- The Calculus Wars: Newton, Leibnitz, and The Greatest Mathematical Clash of all Time by Jason Bardi
- Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World by Amir Alexander
- The Irrationals: A Story of the Numbers You Can’t Count On by Julian Havil
- The Librarian who Measured the Earth by Kathryn Lasky
Why do I reread them? Because like cinema and theater I love math when it is couched in a fascinating context. In other words because it is intrinsically interesting, engaging and challenging.
Why can’t student materials be written in this spirit? Hess says because status quo reformers just want to tinker around the edges of current textbooks which doesn’t stop alienating most students in their study of math. A colleague of mine Gary Stager (who is definitely a true common sense reformer) calls “curriculum” a dangerous idea. That’s because math curriculum in the form of textbooks are such an abysmal read for most students. And even the students that do well and like math usually are mostly influenced by good teaching that makes the drab material come to life. I’m really tired of the fact that Dan Myer has to make “fun” of actual activities in math books in his blog. (See http://blog.mrmeyer.com/2017/pseudocontext-saturdays-tornado/)
We have the talent to do better, but unfortunately not the will.
If you agree let me know and maybe we can start a movement protesting text book companies for their poor approach to writing textbooks. Instead of resigning to choose the best text out of all the bad choices offered, we force them (are you listening Pearson & McGraw Hill?) to start from scratch and come up with well written books/media that would inspire both teacher and student to read.
Is this possible or am I just dreaming? I’d like to hear from you.
Hess, Frederick M. The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas. Harvard University Press, November 2010.