Maybe we should stop teaching mathematics in schools.
Heresy, you say? Hear me out.
The system has some problems.
1. Mathematics is not taught correctly, according to managememt guru Peter Drucker. He observed that although East Asian students outperform the rest of the world in math, few people in any country remember what they learned five years after graduation.
I’m not sure how he collected his data. But certainly he has a point. Most people should be able to learn math, and to apply it in their daily lives. But few people can become engineers.
2. Malcolm Gladwell admonished us to stop choosing winners early. He pointed out a problem with our culture: we like to assign children to career tracks too soon.
We can’t predict genius. We just want to predict genius, because it helps us to feel smart:
“She’ll become a great dancer someday,” we say of the 3-year-old. “Better get her into dance lessons now.”
“Look at the way he runs across the grass. He is sure to be a top hockey player when he gets older.”
In math instruction, perhaps we are choosing winners too early so we can fast-track them to engineering schools. But in reality, a kid who is adept at math at six years old, is just lucky. That part of the brain developed faster than in some peers. Or the parents helped earlier.
Other students could catch up soon if given a proper chance. Unfortunately, math learning is often a survival-of-the-fittest system, where kids who “get it” early learn well, and have the opportunity later to become engineers. Maybe we should start teaching math later, contrary to the trend.
3. Seth Godin has questioned whether we should teach advanced math.
People don’t become better leaders by memorizing the quadratic formula. No one even uses the quadratic formula. I learned it, and I don’t even know what it is.
4. Good teachers (in any subject) are not paid enough. Further, compensation never reflects outcomes. Teachers are not rewarded for innovating. And teachers are largely prohibited from innovating.
It is not the fault of teachers, most of whom are fine people. It is not the fault of administrators, who see the problem but cannot respond. It is not a motivation problem. It is not a funding problem. It is not a research problem. It is a systemic problem. It is a sociological problem.
Of course the thesis here is ridiculous. We MUST teach mathematics. Otherwise who will find a cure for cancer? Or design a better smart phone? Or architect new infrastructure for our cities? How can we solve the world’s Big Problems without math?
The keys to learning math are (1) perseverence and (2) a good teacher. So for more kids to excel at math, we need:
1. a more engaging way of teaching, a way to make math enjoyable
2. a more effective way of teaching
For example, a self-pacing format might be ideal. Because a slow learner might be the one who cures cancer. Khan Academy is one of the finest innovations in a generation. It is self-paced, and it equalizes access. But it requires reading skill. Can a learning-challenged person learn math without individual attention from a concerned human?
3. teachers who are appropriately rewarded
4. a cultural shift to believing that math ability is not inborn
The second requirement, developing a better teaching method, is a huge challenge. I hope you, dear reader, will do it for us.