The Common Denominator: Back to the basics

In my last post, "By the numbers," I examined the average U.S. score of 474 in mathematics literacy and discovered that our scores were lower than the OECD average score of 498. Moreover, thirty-one jurisdictions (23 OECD jurisdictions and 8 non-OECD jurisdictions) scored higher, on average, than the United States. In this post, I take a step back to see how we got here.

“Sankofa,” an African term that is often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi.” In English it translates to “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten [WIKIS]. It is a highly recognizable Asante Adinkra symbol expressed as a mythic bird that flies forward while looking backward with an egg in its mouth.

The African Proverb teaches us that we must gain knowledge and understanding from the lessons of the past in order to obtain a full appreciation of the future. In the spirit of Sankofa, we will take a look back at the psychology and pedagogy of mathematics in order to get a full appreciation of how we got this place.

Time Magazine published an article entitled, “THIS IS MATH?,” contending that it all started in 1989, when the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in response to the consistently poor math scores of U.S. children, issued new standards overhauling math education. Out went the stalwarts of traditional math: the rote memorization drills, the droning chalkboard lectures.  In came the cool stuff: calculators and geoboards, hands-on, open-ended problems, exercises that encourage kids to discover their own route to the right answer.

"The standards emphasized that you had to pay attention to how kids think," says Gail Burrill, president of the council.  So what happened and what influence Gail Burrill to make that statement? It turns out, the constructivist Jean Piaget, had a lot to do with it. In particular, a concept many have come to know as "whole math."

Jean Piaget (French pronunciation: (9 August 1896 – 16 September 1980) was a Swiss developmental psychologist known for his epistemological studies with children. His theory of cognitive development and epistemological view are together called "genetic epistemology" [WIKI].  Piaget showed that all children construct, or create, logic and number concepts from within rather than learn them by internalization from the environment (Piaget 1971; Piaget and Szeminska 1965; Inhelder and Piaget 1964; and Kamii 2000)[NCTM].

"Whole Math" as Time Magazine explained it, is a pejorative reference to "whole language," the controversial method of reading that emphasizes learning entire words and phrases over mastering phonics.  In other words, a concept that demphasizes everything we learned over the past 25 years:  memorizing the mulitplication tables; conducting long division; working out your problems - "showing your work"; and finally homework...

Perhaps this would explain why, at first, the students had a difficult time adjusting to my method of instructions. In 2005, I took a sabbatical from Software Engineering to teach mathematics at Anniston High School - my alma mata. During my year there I demanded of my students higher standards of excellence.  Needless to say, I did not tolerated the use of calculators; math instruction was conducted from bell to bell; and I stayed after school to help anyone that would come.  As a result, students were prepared to negotiate Algebra, Geometry, and Pre Calculus, as well as passed the Alabama High School Graduation Exam. (AHSE) at a higher rate.

In short, these are things that have worked since the beginning of time.  Why are we moving away from them?  I challenge all parents, teachers, and students alike - get back to the basics!

Any thoughts?



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