Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Not Just a Stupid Education Fad of the Day

Michelle Malkin describes herself as "a mother, wife, blogger, conservative syndicated columnist, author, and Fox News Channel contributor." Yesterday, on her blog, she evidently decided to give the liberals in government a break while she criticized mathematics education. It's obvious why "math teacher" is not included in her bio.

It seems a group of students at Mesa School in Somis, California is studying "Mayan Math." Ms. Malkin is concerned about the "social justice-tainted effort by educrats to corrupt and undermine rigorous math education in this country" and calls the topic the "stupid education fad of the day."

In my experience as an actual math teacher, I was always concerned that students know the subject matter. I always tried to teach the basics and then extend that learning into rigorous mathematics. In all my years of teaching, I never met a math teacher who wasn't concerned about this.

But there are different paths that lead to the same result. One teacher might make the students take timed tests to learn their basic multiplication facts. By taking these tests over and over, the students eventually learn those facts. Another teacher might have students work with each other using flash cards. A third teacher might have the students practice those multiplication facts using a teaching program on a computer. Is one method any better than the other? The methods all lead to the same result, but different students respond favorably to different methods. Some will learn better with the drills, others with the flash cards, and others with the computer. But if they all learn their multiplication facts, then the methods are all successful.

Who's to say that Mayan Math won't help a student learn? Teachers are always trying different strategies to reach as many students as possible. If Mayan Math causes a few students to become interested in mathematics and want to learn more about it, then it's worth it.

My fifth grade teacher taught us several different bases in math. I remember learning base 2, base 3, base 4, base 8, and base 16. The work reinforced and strengthened my learning of the base 10 system we use everyday. Learning base 2 and base 16 was also valuable in my computer programming classes, since these are the languages on which computers are founded.

Mayan Math uses base 20. It's quite possible that a student learning base 20 will be a better math student for it. They may understand base 10 better. And if they're planning to do any computer programming, learning different bases is a necessity, not just a "stupid education fad of the day."

I am all for rigorous math programs, but until you are in the classroom day after day, working 24/7 to keep 150 students achieving at proficient levels, you really shouldn't be judging. I know that some modern math initiatives are worthless, but taking 3 or 4 days during the school year to learn something interesting or fun or different or cultural does not take away from a rigorous mathematics curriculum. It may actually enhance it. But I'm sure Michelle Malkin would just think that was "Perfect dogma in the Age of Obama: Feeling over facts. Cultural connection over competence. Diversity uber alles." I just disagree with her.


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