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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Fractals demonstrate the poetry of math.

Every year, millions of students are struggling in algebra class. And, despite what the pundits say, the answer is not to get rid of math education; the answer is to fix it.

Math teachers in the U.S. have the world's hardest job, because opinions about the subject are already stacked against it. Over the years, the humanness and relevancy of math have been squeezed out, and students no longer see its significance. To get students engaged in math again, we have to add the human element back.

Math is everywhere. The nautilus shell is nature's Fibonacci sequence. Architecture is geometry in action. Snowflakes illustrate symmetry. And even hairstyles, like African braids, show us fractals at work.1 Math is the poetry of the universe. It is time to show it that way. Let's teach math in a popular and less archaic way.

Airing Dirty Laundry

Let me share a dirty little secret about math education within the university: it is pretty rotten! Maybe you knew that already. What I can add is that there is no motivation to change it. University math departments have an awesome deal. They teach an often-required and often-dreaded math class for all undergraduates at the university, which justifies their existence. Since many departments are beholden to them for this service, math departments are less apt to change.2 As such, they teach math as if all students are future mathematicians, and do little to invoke the general student population with any kind of inspiration. Here lies the linchpin for our nation's poor math performance. As a result, generations of students have had bad math experiences.

Teaching math poorly is expensive. Colleges spend two billion dollars helping students build basic math skills.3 And those students who want to go into STEM fields often leave because of their difficulty with the math requirement. The data shows that over 60% of students who want to major in STEM fail to do so.4 The impact is especially severe for women and minorities.

Math classes are designed to dissuade; they are weed-out classes.4 Weed-out classes have a long yet unknown history in the U.S., which I uncovered when writing my book Save Our Science. Weed-out classes have been around since the end of the 19th century. Difficult classes were created to discourage doubtful students and identify future scientists when course offerings were limited at the advent of the elective system.5 This outdated mindset has been passed on, and many professors don’t want to change (or know how to change), because it has always been that way. Many professors have adopted the backward thinking that they don't want to "spoil" the next generation, and everyone should pay their dues. But we don't have time for that kind of foolish thinking anymore. There is too much at stake.

Bad Math Kills Dreams

Math is the STEM admission ticket -- if you pass, you proceed; if you don't, game over. It should not be that way. I've heard countless stories about how math has killed dreams. I once met a very bright television producer who told me that she wanted to be a doctor, but could not pass calculus. This is very sad. Nothing should have that much power, especially to stop people from doing good things.

We need to take math back.

The role of math teachers is tantamount to changing the perception of math. We've got to infuse fun math in the classroom, and one way is to hire and train teachers so that they feel comfortable with the topic. There is a big difference between what American and international math teachers know, and Figure 1 below shows how this difference is directly linked to how well our students do in math.6 In some countries, you are required to take four years on the topic you teach. The solution is for the U.S. to recruit math students who are the top performers in their class -- and can teach! The only way to make this happen is to make salaries more attractive and create other incentives.

Figure 1. Teacher preparation versus student math scores. Used with permission.6

Credit: J. Ferrini-Mundy et al.

One more extremely important place to fix math education is at home. The trick to overcoming our national math phobia is to encourage curiosity by peppering in a math problem whenever possible at home. We can also make math part of popular culture with television shows like Numb3rs and institutions like the Museum of Mathematics. Creating pathways for a greater affinity towards math will get our kids ready for the 21st century.

Let's do the math . . . right.

Notes

1 R. Eglash, African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design. (Rutgers University Press, 1999).
2 R. Demillo, Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities. (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011).
3 S. J. Gates, C. Mirkin, "Engage to Excel." Science 335, 1545 (30 March 2012).
4 J. Mervis, "Weed-Out Courses Hamper Diversity." Science 334, 1333 (December 9, 2011).
5 F. Rudolph, The American College and University: A History. (Knopf, 1968).
6 J. Ferrini-Mundy et al., "Knowing Mathematics" (Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, 2006).

Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Katy Utter's picture
Katy Utter
Social Media Intern at Edutopia

This is a great article and sums up so much of what I've experienced in higher education math.
I myself had considered a degree in science and then when I researched the curriculum and saw the math courses I would have to take, I changed my path.
I still had to take math courses through the business school, but as I sat through them I realized how archaic they were. Teachers lectured and showed very few examples and I left each class with a passing grade, but with very little value added.
I feel like when "education innovations" are discussed, Math is rarely talked about. Thanks Ainissa for your perspective.

Ainissa Ramirez's picture
Ainissa Ramirez
Science Evangelist
Blogger

Thanks for sharing your story. Imagine if we lived in a world where math is fun and engaging. Math would not be the barrier to dreams that it is now.

Jack Smith's picture

Most children hate math lesson, but the math is the most skill to create logic think. Also math is very useful skill in work. But for most people the math can be replaced by a Calculator. So how to teach math with interesting and helpful is a problem. Thanks for your great article.

tamara vinson's picture
tamara vinson
future teacher in st. louis, mo

what a great article!! I've often wondered what has changed since i was a high school student in the late 80s to the present? I loved math until the time I reached college. I often thought about teaching math in middle school but after having a hard time in college with the very subject that I loved, I thought...nah...i can find another way to use my number sense...and as usual I haven't as of yet. When i speak with family members they all have the same thought of hating math...i myself dont' hate it but blame higher education for our loss of interest. I was a substitute teacher for a local high school and one of the classes i recalled subbing for was pre-calc. I had pre-calc in high school and did great, and tried to explain the lesson the best I could to the students. I will never forget having a bright idea to send a student to the board to work out the problem. The student and along with the rest of the class said going to the board was the best thing I could have done because it allowed them to see the bigger picture not just on paper, but for the class to help them resolve the problem. I believe its simple things like sending a student to a board to gain their interest. It could some what back fire, but at least they have the ability to see from a marker/smart board perspective.

Brian's picture
Brian
4th Grade Math from Michigan.

It is a shame that there is such a fallout in the engagement and interest in math as students get older and go onto higher education. I also believe one huge problem is the emphasis on arithmetic, rote regurgitation of procedure steps like algorithms. At the elementary level, I hope to provide engagement and interest by pushing algorithms to the wayside, and promoting real world situations for students to generate their own solutions and become problem solvers! They need to see what they are doing is means to end, not just an action because the teacher said so!

Statsman's picture

It's a sad fact that this country has created, yet again, an obvious contradiction in its "values as a society" and how to go about making those values a reality. At a time when we need more disadvantaged groups involved in math and science to propel the country further, higher education does not want advancement and could care less about our youth.

Question? How can President Obama call for more engineers in America when at many university's only the top 2% of students in a class of 250 taking Linear Algebra are allowed to get A grades while the rest MUST get B's or C's due to grading "policy"? How does this move us forward as a math literate country? Why SHOULD a student care when in this case, no matter how hard he or she works, they are still subject to getting a B or less once the final grades have been calculated? How does having professors who give extremely hard exams such as knowing full well that to answer all questions accurately on tests it takes more time than allowed, beneficial to math education? Again, why SHOULD students care when many so-called "educators" stack the odds against students, even those with a genuine interest?

And graduate schools could care less of whether or not you had an incompetent professor, just as long as you get the grade. But then again, we need to keep those numbers low too. God forbid we have too many individuals who actually survive an undergraduate program move on, especially women and minorities. That's simply not how things are supposed to be.

But wait, I thought this concept of "working hard" applied to all things in life? Let me stop. How could I have been so blind? Surely, America's dislike with math is clearly the fault of lazy, slothful, and unmotivated students and NEVER that of anyone else. Right?

Excellent, well-written article Ainissa. It's just a shame that the knowledge you speak will continue to fall on the deaf ears of the academic elitists who hypocritically cry "progress" while their actions and pedagogy show blatant cultural and social selection to those deemed "fit" enough.

Statsman's picture

Let me be clear. As a minority myself, I completed my B.S. in Statistics at the University of California, Davis and took several upper division math classes at UC Berkeley through a cross enrollment program. I am well aware of the commitment it takes to succeed, especially in an ultra competitive environment where you are the only Black, and sometimes only American, student in your class. I am in no way advocating that we teach to the test or see to it that everyone get an A to feel good. However, I am of the view that to make math more valuable in society at all levels, we need to rid this notion of math being only accessible for some and not all. Yes, curriculum should be challenging and engaging, but not to the point of general discouragement, as we as a country have created.

[quote]It's a sad fact that this country has created, yet again, an obvious contradiction in its "values as a society" and how to go about making those values a reality. At a time when we need more disadvantaged groups involved in math and science to propel the country further, higher education does not want advancement and could care less about our youth.

Question? How can President Obama call for more engineers in America when at many university's only the top 2% of students in a class of 250 taking Linear Algebra are allowed to get A grades while the rest MUST get B's or C's due to grading "policy"? How does this move us forward as a math literate country? Why SHOULD a student care when in this case, no matter how hard he or she works, they are still subject to getting a B or less once the final grades have been calculated? How does having professors who give extremely hard exams such as knowing full well that to answer all questions accurately on tests it takes more time than allowed, beneficial to math education? Again, why SHOULD students care when many so-called "educators" stack the odds against them, even those with a genuine interest and love for the subject?

And graduate schools could care less of whether or not you had an incompetent professor, just as long as you get the grade. But then again, we need to keep those numbers low too. God forbid we have too many individuals who actually survive an undergraduate program in math or science move on, especially women and minorities. That's simply not how things are supposed to be.

But wait, I thought this concept of "working hard" applied to all things in life? Let me stop. How could I have been so blind? Surely, America's dislike with math is clearly the fault of lazy, slothful, and unmotivated students and NEVER that of anyone else. Right?

Excellent, well-written article Ainissa. It's just a shame that the knowledge you speak will continue to fall on the deaf ears of the academic elitists who hypocritically cry "progress" while their actions and pedagogy show blatant cultural and social selection to those deemed "fit" enough.[/quote]

Ainissa Ramirez's picture
Ainissa Ramirez
Science Evangelist
Blogger

Yes there is a problem, which you spell out so eloquently. But throwing hands up in the air won't solve it. As my dad would say, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. So we must speak truth to power whenever and wherever we can. It won't be easy, but changing the world never is.

Apathy is easy. Hope takes courage. Be courageous.

tamara vinson's picture
tamara vinson
future teacher in st. louis, mo

We need to take a stance and find out how can we reach the students that places the student in a good place regarding math. I'm going to continue to encourage others with and find a way to explain in simple terms as much as possible.

Sara M.'s picture

I think that although a lot of people struggle with math, it is still an extremely important part of our education and daily life. When we think of math, we simply think of all the times we've sat at our desk in class with the teacher lecturing us. But that's not the only thing you should think of. Math takes part in our daily life, every day, whether you are in class or not, you are putting math into action. Almost everything we do involves math, so I agree that math and algebra should be fixed instead of removed.

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