Math As A Merit Badge (And Other Comments)

August 20, 2013

Don't Drink and Derive

Don’t Drink and Derive

The responses to my last post about math (who said I’m not a math blogger again?) ranged from the plauditory to the super-critical. Here’s a selection of some of my favorite comments to my last piece. First, Michael Doyle sets the record straight:

Algebra II has become a badge, one of many, that pretends to separate middle class white boys from, well, everybody else. You can pass A2 without understanding a whole lot about mathematics, or even numbers, but the vast majority of careers that “require” A2 do not actually require that you actually use it–they just require that you have some kind of certificate saying you passed a course labeled Algebra II.

So if we’re going to talk about math, or schooling as a whole, we need to look at what “merit” means. Perfect. Another from Jeff Branzberg:

The problem with math [instruction] is most math teachers do not make the subject interesting. I do not believe this is their fault, though. Math is perceived (and taught) as a series of techniques and algorithms, with little to no real life connection. Typical problems are developed simply to assess whether or not the student has mastered those techniques and algorithms. The pressures of high stakes testing and false accountability (e.g., if a student has mastered a technique, frequently without understanding, and can apply it in a rote fashion he/she is deemed to have learned it) prevent math teachers from spending the time needed for understanding.
Geonz hit this comment out the park, and I wish I said it first. More explicitly. Like he did.
Another problem is that math (and academic success) is taught with a particular kind of code, and if you’re in the ‘right’ demographics, you learn that code. Once they know some secret passwords that you don’t, you end up not understanding much of what’s going on, so you do the best you can to learn the ones they’re teaching where you are — but you’re missing … the basics.
Finally, I found Mike Klonsky’s view on things interesting:
I didn’t read Baker’s piece this way. I found it pretty compelling. I don’t think he was trying to limit how much math students receive. But rather, making Algebra 2 and advanced math electives, rather than compulsory gate keepers to college. How many more gates to kids need? Why not Philosophy? Chinese? Both very interesting and important if the student is interested. Baker seems to favor compulsory first year Algebra. Then make it interest-driven.
While I do believe we need to make math more interest-driven, I also get tired of using math as the straw-man for reforming subjects, as Ilana Horn has mentioned on Twitter. If we’re going to make it “interest-driven,” then I hope we do so for all kids, not just the ones we want to encourage to go to vocational school. That’s my only real concern.
That was fun. Til next time, folks.

Jose

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José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

John T. Spencer August 20, 2013 at 11:23 pm

I’d aim for meaningful over interesting. Make it a place for problem-solving and critical thinking. And make that true of Shakespeare and chemistry and, hell, P.E., for that matter. All kids deserve that.

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David August 21, 2013 at 8:37 am

I wonder why we require that all students tread the path to calculus, whether or not they make it. There are certainly many forms of analytical, or mindful literacy that students can study and master that demonstrate the same level of analytical abilities that the calculus route requires. Why can’t we just advocate the mastery of literacy, which all of these forms of expressive language fall into. Mastery over one will certainly increase one’s ability to comprehend another, if the moment requires. The fact that we try to distinguish math from literacy creates this dichotomy that many Americans have where an individual will regard his or her self as a math person or not a math person, which in turn carries a negative connotation with it. Changing the language and required path all students are required to take with regards to math may help to blur that math person vs. non-math person division that plagues our society. As an example, I struggled with math at an early age but had a natural talent for music. I spent a lot of my time mastering music which requires the study of a highly formalized and stylized form of expressive language. The study of music also helped me build upon my analytical abilities. Later on, when I was required, I began to study mathematics, and found that I could understand it quite easily, with some intentional focus. Now, people say that music is highly mathematical, which is true, but not for the reasons people think. Music relates to math in the same way that studying language relates to math. The study of any of these subjects is the study and mastery of literacy. They all require us to build a capacity to understand and express ourselves using some form of styleized and symbolic language. Thus, I would have to say that all students don’t need to take the calculus path, but do need to build on their capacity to understand and express themselves through some form of literacy.

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