August 12, 2008

How Are We Teaching Our Kids?

This child was taught to consume food using flash cards.*

I promised myself, when I knew we were transitioning from Affordable Housing to Education, that I wouldn't get bogged down in the theory, and would keep it to the facts. Unlike most other areas where the theory can only be understood in the context of the Ivory Tower it came from, education theory seems to be pretty intuitive. Every concerned parent has rehashed the arguments at least once, and it's one of the few places where personal positions (or those of a school) have enduring effects, so people often feel very invested in their opinion.

Then Brendan started writing for the SchoolFinder Blog, and wrote today about one of the more interesting debates in education theory: Old Math vs. New Math. His writings threw my compulsion to avoid theory out the window, and it gave me a renewed conviction that you would find it as engaging as I do. I don't even have to sell it. You're already excited, aren't you?

Old Math is the idea that math should be taught the way most of us were taught--starting with addition and subtraction, then moving on to multiplication, division, long division, finding a good calculator, and forgetting all of the things we learned. The idea is that, like climbing a ladder, if students are taught the basics that can be memorized, they will be able to climb rungs over time until they begin to understand something of the broader mathematical concepts that govern the way numbers work. Given my near-failing grade in Calculus (twice!), I would say I am not a good example of this method in action.

The other side of the debate is New Math, or the idea that, like pulling a Band-Aid off a hairy spot, if students are taught the overarching concepts of how numbers relate to each other, it may hurt at first, but they will ultimately be better prepared, and will be smarter to boot. Think of how you were taught to count using coins. Once a person knows that numbers relate to real things, they come to the conclusion on their own that 1+1=2, will come to know multiplication on their own, and will have an intuitive knowledge of how math works instead of the ability to memorize things. There's some merit to this argument, especially when remembering that the best mathematicians we've ever known, like Einstein, did relatively poorly in memorization-based classes even though they clearly understood the principles. I'll also briefly note that many of the most complex mathematical formulas were discovered by people who were never formally trained in math.

This debate is also interesting because it highlights something I complain about to a fault--that students are poorly trained under No Child Left Behind. Although over the next couple weeks we'll have experts from both sides on here talking more about the specifics of No Child Left Behind, the one thing that I complain about constantly is that the law forces teachers to "teach to the test," and ignores the context of what they're teaching (actually SchoolFinder has a good discussion on this, too). Since money is allotted based only on test scores, teaching kids to memorize is more valuable than teaching an understanding of the underlying concepts. For a simple example, think of the difference between teaching a child to read small books, and teaching a child to recognize words on flashcards. A child will be able to memorize a few words or equations on cards long before they actually know how to read or do math, and will be able to pass a comprehension test without technically comprehending. Considering that 17% of DC's population graduated high school functionally illiterate, I'd say that's exactly what happened.

So we can see there's a difference between reading a book and memorizing a flashcard, though subtle: one of those kids is literate, and one memorizes things well. What I object to is not necessarily that kids are taught good memorization skills, because that's a good thing to know. I'm more concerned that memorization really only works well in small classrooms, and those are not as readily available in low-income communities, rendering students both unable to memorize and unable to understand broader concepts.

On top of that, No Child Left Behind takes the decision to teach a different method out of the teacher's hands though they are often highly trained in education theory. It also goes directly against the way schools run their "Gifted" programs, which are concept-based instead of memorization-based. If we teach our smartest kids using a completely different method than we teach the "dumber" kids, aren't we implicitly saying that concept-based education methods have better results? If that is the argument, shouldn't all kids have access to the best instruction, not just flashcards?

*photo courtesy of HocusPocusFocus.

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