Tag Archives: Commentary

Algebra Is Necessary, But What About How It’s Taught?

stock image In a recent New York Times op-ed, Andrew Hacker suggested that the typical math curriculum might not really be a necessary aspect of modern education — at least, not in the form that it currently takes. Hacker suggests that the textbook formulas found in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry classes are rarely used in “real life,” and the high level of difficulty that many students have with these subjects might unnecessarily inflate dropout rates and cause a handful of other negative educational outcomes. As Hacker suggests, it might be beneficial to focus on the history and philosophy of mathematics or emphasize “real life” applications of various mathematical fields, rather than zeroing in on the nitty-gritty formulas and minutiae of the math itself. After all, as he acknowledges, one of the most important reasons to learn math is not the math itself – it is the importance of learning how to engage in deductive reasoning, problem solving, and critical analysis.

However, as fellow science blogger Joanne Manaster noted in a comment about the article, “I’d argue that perhaps this is not so much about if math is needed, but how it is taught…geometry really helps with logic and thinking skills and algebra with general problem solving, so I don’t think it should go by the wayside altogether.”

I happen to agree enthusiastically with Manaster, and I’d like to hope that Hacker was intending for this larger pedagogical issue to be the main takeaway point for his article. I think it would be a mistake to conclude from this piece that we should simply remove algebra (or any math) from the typical school curriculum, or even that we should replace specific algebra, trigonometry, or geometry classes with broader “quantitative literacy” courses, as Hacker suggests we should consider at one point. Rather, much as blogger and author Jennifer Ouellette did with calculus in her book The Calculus Diaries, I think the answer lies in finding ways to take this idea of “real world applications” and using them to help instructors continue teaching the typical lessons of the algebra, trigonometry, or geometry classrooms in a more effective manner, not using them to replace those lessons.1 Luckily, social psychology offers some theories that can help us understand how students might better learn and understand otherwise-esoteric knowledge.

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If I were a well-off White man… I might not understand other people very well.

“I thought this was The Onion at first, too. Nope.”

“This is a joke, right?”

“Speaking of ignorance…”

This is just a sampling of comments that I saw on Facebook as people linked to an article that appeared in Forbes on Monday, titled (in a rather inflammatory manner, if I do say so myself), “If I Were A Poor Black Kid.

My immediate reaction was to hate the article. I found it insulting, ignorant, and just plain short-sighted. As I commented in my own link on Facebook, “[To summarize], ‘This is what I would do if I were born into a completely different set of circumstances, a completely different family, a completely different social support system, a completely different school district, a completely different body with a completely different skin tone and a completely different way that people in public respond to me, yet I somehow still retained all of the benefits, knowledge, and access to resources as a middle-aged, middle-class white man.'”

However, upon re-reading the article and giving it a little more thought, I’ve come to realize that the real issue with the article isn’t that the author, Gene Marks, is necessarily racist, or even really ignorant. After all, he acknowledges right off the bat that the system is unfair, and that children from other areas of town have it much harder than his own, privileged children do. Marks clearly has some knowledge of the unfairness of “the system.” So the real question is, how could he then go on to write such a short-sighted article, completely missing any sort of perspective on what it means to actually be a member of the community to which he is proselytizing?1

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Why Jersey Shore won’t make you dumber: The importance of responsible science journalism

I was browsing my Facebook news feed yesterday when I saw that someone I know from college had linked to this article on the MSNBC website: “Watching ‘Jersey Shore’ might make you dumber, study suggests.” The description underneath the link read, “Take note, fans of mindless reality shows like ‘Jersey Shore’: New research suggests watching something dumb might make you dumber.”

At that point, I should have thought to myself, “I have a lot of work that I need to get done today. I probably should not read this article and risk getting very worked up over what will likely be a really painful misrepresentation of psychological research.”

Oh, if only I ever actually thought that way. But alas, I do not. So I clicked on the link.

My bad.
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