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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Want Kids to Learn Math? Stop Teaching It by Susan Engel

, senior lecturer in psychology at Williams College reports, "The U.S. has a math problem. Despite all the time, energy and money the country has thrown into finding better ways to teach the subject, American children keep scoring poorly and arriving at college woefully unprepared. Just as bad, if not worse, too many students think they hate math."

Photo: Bloomberg View

I propose a solution: Stop requiring everyone to take math in school.

People typically offer some combination of four reasons children should learn math: for everyday functions such as doing taxes, buying groceries and reading the news; for getting a job in an increasingly technologically advanced market; as a powerful way of thinking and understanding the world; to tackle high school or get into a good college.

Let's consider these one by one. To some degree, children naturally learn basic arithmetic just by spending time with people who use it, and by carrying out such tasks as setting the table, going to the store or sharing toys with friends. Research shows that even illiterate children can compute sums quite quickly and accurately in familiar settings (such as selling produce on the street). Babies are born with an intuitive knowledge of numbers. It wouldn’t take much for schools to teach every child how to add, subtract, multiply and divide.

Those interested in highly quantitative fields such as technology, finance or research are likely to have a natural inclination for math. They can obtain the knowledge they need later, in a much more effective and profound way, in college or beyond. People who invent new industries are rarely using math they learned in school, and often aren’t using any at all. Why drag all elementary school students through a compulsory curriculum that turns off as many as it prepares, on the off chance that a few might need it?

True, learning math can give us intellectual strengths different from the ones we get reading novels, studying history or poking around in a petri dish. However, these kinds of thinking are not necessarily tied to numbers, certainly not at the novice level. Advanced mathematics requires students to reason logically, be patient, methodical and playful in trying out solutions to a problem, imagine various routes to the same end, tolerate uncertainty and search for elegance. They need to know when to trust their quantitative intuitions and when to engage in counterintuitive thinking.

Source: Bloomberg View

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