Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Math in the Media - Jump Math

A neat article appears in the Opinionator column of the New York Times by David Bornstein;

The article details a new attitude and focus in the education of mathematics at the primary school level. The organization, Jump Math, is based in England and is the project of John Mighton, a playwright and author, and seems to already be showing results.

Really, it sounds like Jump Math (as I write this, the link above to the organization is down) is not a new set of concepts to teach. Rather, it is simply an idea that the best way to teach mathematics (at any level) is to instill the idea that high level math is not just for those who have "the ability" to get it, but for everyone. Many of us who teach math really do understand that anyone can understand high level math. The problem is that many students have already concluded that they are not able to get math, so they do not have the confidence to really try to understand what is going on. Couple that with a sense that many teachers of mathematics do not really get the art and beauty of mathematics. So they teach a technique-based, problem-centric type of math that loses the deeper meaning. Without proper motivation, much mathematics loses its context, and hence much of its meaning.

From the article:
Imagine if someone at a dinner party casually announced, “I’m illiterate.” It would never happen, of course; the shame would be too great. But it’s not unusual to hear a successful adult say, “I can’t do math.” That’s because we think of math ability as something we’re born with, as if there’s a “math gene” that you either inherit or you don’t.
I have heard this ALOT, and my response is always something like "probably because you were taught by people who didn't get it. Anyone can do math...."

The article is nicely written, and quite pleasing to hear for someone like me. I will be probing this new set of ideas called Jump Math over the near future and report my finding here. To me, at least on the surface, something like this is exactly what I think pre-university teaching of mathematics needs.

The article promises more at the end of the week. We will await the continuance. For now, a good ending quote:
"Even deeper, for children, math looms large; there’s something about doing well in math that makes kids feel they are smart in everything. In that sense, math can be a powerful tool to promote social justice."
One has to love quotes like that....

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Math in the Media - Algebra a leading indicator of success in life??

Whoddathunkkit? Well, except for most of us that do math for a living, you mean?

This article in the Washington Post:
Requiring Algebra II in high school gains momentum nationwide
by Peter Whoriskey, seems to be really an article on the debate of the merits of teaching high level mathematics as part of the core curriculum in high school.

Peter discusses a study that shows a correlation between successfully taking mathematics through Algebra II, where properties of functions like exponentials and logarithms are analyzed (along, I guess with complex numbers) in high school and continued success in college and through a career. Whether learning algebra is the reason people are more likely to succeed, or those more likely to succeed usually wind up taking the challenge of Algebra II, is not apparent.

But the study is interesting and should keep up the discussion.

My personal take. Forcing middle schoolers and high schoolers to master problem solving strategies using highly abstract models in mathematics is a way to wire their brains for the complexities of real life events that will present themselves in any and every career path choice, no?

One can teach strategy and problem solving in any specific discipline using the techniques of that discipline, and you get people well versed in that discipline. But mathematics is a 100% in-the-head discipline. Mastering the abstract complexities of mathematical structure and analysis means learning not just how to problem-solve, but it is like learning the actual art of problem solving. It becomes adaptable to any future discipline one winds up in.

Good sound mathematical training is like producing problem-solving stem cells. Later in life, when you need those stem cells to morph into good problem solving skills in some job, you will have them ready for use.

I also believe that Algebra II is attainable for every high school student. Some of the quotes in this article come from students who do not get the subject. It looks like they were/are not well-taught the subject. Perhaps THAT is the real problem? Non-uniformly good teaching.

STEM Over Spring Break....

Here is an interesting activity; a way to give back to those yearning for the kind of "fun" of mathematics that you feel and felt back then....

Christine Newman, the Assistant Dean for Educational Outreach and Dr. Meg Bentley, Program Manager at the Center for Educational Outreach in the Whiting School of Engineering at JHU, are organizing a day of fun math-centric informal activities for Baltimore City School kids during their upcoming Spring break next week. It's called STEM over Spring Break (the STEM part means, I believe, Science, Technology , Engineering and Mathematics) and is meant to be lighthearted and playful. if you are interested in taking part by working with city students on fun math-ish activities, or if you just have some bright ideas for playful math or interested math activities you would like to share, contact Dr. Bentley directly at meg(dot)bentley(at)jhu(dot)edu. Or click on the link to the Center above for more information.

It is always good to stop once in a while along your own path and give a hand to those struggling along the same one, no?