The Four Pillars of Math Education

I have had the pleasure of finding excellent books and articles this summer, it seems like change is in the air. If you want to know whether I am really enjoying reading something, look and see if I have a piece of paper out (or my phone), writing down all my thoughts. My wife tells me to read something to take my mind off things every once in a while, but if it isn't thought provoking then what's the point?

I believe I came across this article first in an EDU-SIG Python mailing but I cannot find the original post. This group participates in discussions regarding education and computing (specifically with the Python Programming Language). It is an excellent convergence of brilliant minds and I highly recommend it anyone with an interest in the subject.

The article is titled The Four Pillars Upon Which The Failure of Math Education Rests and in it Matt Brenner writes with the same passion and conviction as the writer of Lockhart's Lament (original article is a free PDF) so famously wrote. While there is no difference in the passion nor the topic of discussion, Four Pillars involves not didactic rhetoric but data and research. The article is longer, but it provides concrete steps math educators (and other content subjects as well) can take to make effective change in the classroom and is well worth the time.

If I may spoil the surprise a little bit to review the article, he shows an avalanche of data to support the claim that high stakes standardized testing based education (as it currently exists) is not working (no surprise to anyone reading this blog I'm sure). The claims of growth and success within districts or states are found to be the result of playing with the data or setting goals so low that it would be impossible not to meet them.

Additionally, we have feedback loops that makes it difficult to create reform. One example cited is the ever increasing size of the textbooks in order to be perceived as the best resource for schools. This results in a curriculum that becomes less and less based in understanding but in "skimming" information and "covering" facts. This arms race cannot cease as no textbook publisher seems interested in reducing the content to cover more in depth as it would potentially be perceived as less/lower quality.

In another cycle we must break out of, we are now in a society where the technology of our lives is far different than the ones our parents did. The ways and amount we can learn is staggering but we still teach and act as if the technological breakthroughs never happened. While we could continue to think that as long as we do it as well as our teachers did for us, things will carry on as they have. However, our society is different in many ways and calls for new learning in method and matter.

The article/book continues to point out the flaws in our educational system, but points more specifically to the flaws in math education. But far from a doom and gloom prophet, he provides excellent suggestions for what can be done tomorrow. Yes, while there are big picture issues to overcome there are still things we can do in our classrooms to break from the pedagogy of the past.

If Lockhart's Lament stirred you but left you wanting more, check out The Four Pillars.