Remember when you were a kid and your Mom told you to clean your room. What did you do? You shoved all your toys (and other crap) under the bed, in a frantic explosion of “work” that took all of 5 seconds, and you called out, “Mom! I’m done!”
You were proud of yourself. You bucked the system! In a small way, you even felt accomplished. After all, you did something, and the room looked more clean than before. “This is great!” you thought to yourself. “Life isn’t hard, it’s easy.” You figured out something profound about life itself. You were so damned smart… until your Mom came into the room.
Here’s how my Mom responded when I did the same thing:
- She threw all of the stuff I’d hidden under the bed back out onto the floor;
- She then stripped everything off of my bed, and threw that onto the floor, too;
- She then dumped out everything from my drawers, from my desk, the closet, everything she could find onto the floor.
“This is going to keep happening until you actually clean your room,” my Mom said.
It is easy to pretend you are working, and do nothing. It is easy to trick yourself into believing your own bullshit: “I’m trying. I’m really working hard. I’m DOING something!” My Mom was teaching me a lesson: Results matter. All of the exclamation points in the world can’t fix the problem at hand if your solution doesn’t even address it.
- It is easy to look busy, get funding, be a philanthropist, and increase your political clout without solving anything.
- It is easy to focus on the wrong problem, but make it LOOK like you are focusing on the right problem.
Americans are masters of this skill — the best the world has ever seen.
This article is roughly divided into the following 3 parts:
- PART ONE: Statement of the Problem(s)
- PART TWO: Exploration of the Problem(s)
- PART THREE: Exploration of the Solution(s)
And, as usual, it finishes with a wrap up. Let’s go!
- PART ONE: Common Core Is Hiding Toys Under The Bed
- PART TWO: The Hard Problems
- PART THREE: The Hard Solution: Change America
- Conclusion: Bringing This Ship Back Around
PART ONE: Common Core Is Hiding Toys Under The Bed
The new push for the Common Core standards — the newest in a long line of top-down government policies aimed at saving us from our lagging brains — is a great example of a hiding toys under the bed solution.
- Common Core, and other attempts at overthrowing the methods by which we teach math, are doomed to fail, because they miss the point, NOT because there is anything wrong with Common Core itself.
Other countries are doing remarkably well using what we would call “outdated” methods.
There must be something else that is holding us back — not curriculum or a lack of standards — something deeper and more insidious.
What Common Core Is Not?
Strictly speaking, Common Core is not a curriculum. It is a set of standards and tests to measure whether those standards are being met. However, in practice, standards are like rules in a game — and curriculum are like strategies that you can use to “win” that game.
A game is defined by its rules. The strategies in any game are confined to those that make sense given the rules. You aren’t going to run a Football play in a Basketball game. You are even less likely to use a Chess move in a Boxing match! Similarly, the curriculum options that make sense when Common Core standards are the goal will be defined against the possible ones that the rules of the game allow in the first place.
So, while Common Core is not a curriculum, it does narrow the possible curricula that a teacher/district/state can use. In this article I will use the word “curriculum” to mean the “set” of curricula that are available under Common Core.
Common Core Isn’t The Issue
This article isn’t about Common Core, per se, but about why ANY solution of this type is misguided and doomed to failure, no matter how good it is. Most proposed solutions to our failure at Mathematics begin with a hypothesis similar to this one: Americans are bad at math BECAUSE we teach it in a “traditional” way. (You can substitute “traditional” for whatever the new enemy of the moment is.)
Let us unpack that hypothesis a little:
- Americans are bad at math
- The reason is that we teach it with some particular method.
The first part we can all agree with. Americans are bad at thinking, so of course they are bad at math. But is the reason Americans are bad at math because of a teaching methodology? OR, is the reason something else entirely? (Spend a second thinking outside of the box, and come up with your own list of other reasons why Americans might suck at math — there are a lot!)
Defending “Traditional” Math
Before I answer the question I just begged — what is the “hard” problem? — let’s take a minor detour and defend what most new “solutions” are out to crush: traditionally taught mathematics.
- Japanese teach math in a (more or less) “traditional” way.
- The average Japanese person stomps the average American into the ground with their math skills.
Are those statements connected? Does the first cause the second? Are they simply correlated? These are good questions. But, a more important one is this: Do those facts taken together jive with the original hypothesis that teaching math in a traditional way is the cause of Americans being bad at math?
We could have substituted in for “Japan” any of the following: China, India, most of Europe… The list is long.
Tradition Is Another Name For Tested
Crowds are dangerous. But, the wisdom of a collective mind, over time, is powerful. How do you think Wikipedia works? How did science and mathematics evolve? Traditional methods didn’t just spring up out of thin air without any testing in the real world. It was precisely the opposite! It is imperative to question everything — not least of which, tradition — but, to pretend that we have strong evidence against traditional mathematics methods is shockingly naive at best, and grossly incompetent at worst.
The truth is that few methods of doing anything on earth have been more successful — ever — than the traditional ways of doing and teaching mathematics. Your Grandparents were better at math than you. What does that say?
Mathematicians are the Shamans of Math. They can guide you through the forests of darkness. They have been at this for thousands of years — literally. We should probably listen.
Defending Common Core
It may seem paradoxical for me to defend Common Core right after defending “traditionally taught math”, but it isn’t. They are not incompatible. They are simply different ways of looking at the same problems — in fact, many mathematicians look at math problems similarly to the methods being promoted by Common Core!
Contrary to popular belief, mathematics is NOT linear (unless we’re doing linear algebra…), it is more like an infinite-dimensional topological space, where each problem can be warped and bent and twisted into all kinds of crazy shapes, and yet not lose its own “core” — that is, the problem can be made to look very different, yet still be the same problem, and the answer is still correct.
We DO want kids to learn how varied math actually is. I suspect that some of the ideas from Common Core may be BETTER at engaging a kid’s mind in a way that makes things more fun than the way most math classes were taught when I was a kid.
Common Core does NOT replace traditional techniques. It doesn’t. You still need your times-tables, you still will learn to subtract the “old” way, etc. But you will ALSO learn some of the reasons WHY we do those (in the long-run) faster techniques.
BTW, that’s almost exactly how we teach future mathematicians in college:
- You learn some super-basics (like calculus in your freshman year).
- You spend years learning WHY — going under the hood — and discovering how those basics are not at all “basic”, but are deep as hell. (e.g., Analysis).
- Then, if you’re an applied mathematician especially, you learn even faster techniques and methods of applying those same “basics” to ever harder problems.
The fundamentals matter and it matters that you learn everything you possibly can about those fundamentals and how to use them.
Sooo… Common Core OR Traditional Math: CHOOSE!
No. The whole point is that we need to avoid the revolution tendency (throw the baby out, guillotine the King, destroy the world to save a tree…) and instead focus on doing ALL THE THINGS, taking our time, and enjoy the process. This is not a situation where the adversarial system applies.
Seriously, Do Traditional Methods CAUSE Americans To Be Bad At Math?
Given the fact that:
- Traditional methods are being used by other countries who’s people are better in math than we are, AND
Traditional methods have been used for centuries to train all of the worlds leading scientists and mathematicians, THEN
What is the probability that traditional methods are the cause of our decline?
The methods are not the problem, we are!
PART TWO: The Hard Problems
PROBLEM: The American Obsession with Short Cuts.
In short, we are lazy. Kids in other countries, especially in Asia, study harder and longer than our kids do.
- We expect our kids to be able to compete with those in the rest of the world… but we want to do it without requiring as much total time studying and doing homework.
We tell Americans that they can “get fit” by going on a 10 minute nature hike twice a week. Then we wonder why we are fat.
Most top Weightlifters on the world stage lift 6 days a week, often 2 times a day. We tell ours they can get the same results with 3 times a week, and only one of those is a “heavy” day. (Don’t overtrain!)
It ain’t rocket science. Do more math homework and you’ll learn more math. There are no shortcuts in the real world. Americans HATE that.
The Two Hard Problems
I believe we are facing TWO hard problems that need to be addressed regarding education:
- Teachers: Who is teaching the youngest Americans, and how do we attract the best talent?
Culture: Who are we, and why are we so dumb?
The second is, by far, the hardest and most important. But the first deserves a hard look (pun intended).
Problem 1: It’s Not About The Math, It’s About The Teachers
For the sake of argument, let us assume that the Common Core standards produce the greatest curriculum ever designed.
It still won’t do anything. Americans will still suck at math.
- Why? Because most kids are not taught math by someone who LOVES math enough to marry it.
Why? Because most teachers of math at the Elementary and Middle-School level don’t even have an undergraduate degree in math!
People who love math the most major in it. Everyone else who loves math, loved it… but not enough to put a ring on it.
Mathematicians Date Math
Imagine you have two single friends: Keith and Tammy. You tell Tammy, “You should totally date my friend Keith. He’s so cool and awesome.”
And your friend says, “Ya? Would you date him?”
“Um… No…” you say, tentatively.
You may love Keith, but you don’t LOVE Keith. Keith is math. Tammy is a math-major.
Where Do Math Majors Teach?
- If you have an undergrad in math, and want to teach k-12, where do you think you’ll be teaching? High School.
If you have a Masters Degree or a PhD in math, is K-12 teaching even on your options list? Not a chance in Hell. If you want to teach, you’ll probably choose college, or go rogue like me!
So, very few people who LOVE math (enough to date it!) are teaching k-8th graders. Many people who major in math would LOVE to teach kids, but don’t, because the job-market is better elsewhere.
Many People Who Are Teaching Your Kids Math, Hate Math!
Many of the people who DO teach Elementary and Middle-School math don’t even like math at all! They just got wrapped up into teaching it. Some of them honestly HATE math — especially at the elementary school level. If from the time you are in Kindergarten until the time you reach High school, the majority of your math classes were taught by a person who doesn’t really like math, how likely are YOU to like math?
What if you were being taught by someone who hates math?
Problem 2: It’s Not About The Teachers, It’s About The Culture
It’s bad enough if kids are being taught math by teachers who don’t like math. It’s worse that when they go home, their parents say things like,
- “Oh, I was very bad at math,”
- “I hate math”
- “Math?! Ugh! Gross!”
Do you HONESTLY think this kid is going to like math?
I Repeat: It’s The Culture, Stupid
I’m not going to go all P.C. on you and soften the blow: Americans are stupid.
It is shocking how poorly educated we are compared to the rest of our peers in the first world. We’re some dumb-ass, mother fuckers. True fact.
The REAL reason isn’t the schools. It isn’t the curriculum. It isn’t the teachers. It isn’t even the parents (directly). It is the culture within which all of those causes exist. Americans don’t like hard things. We like easy things.
- Exercise is hard, so we don’t do.
- Math is hard, so we avoid it like the plague.
- Foreign languages are hard to learn, so clearly they don’t matter. Fuck foreigners, anyway.
- Learning a musical instrument is hard, so we start a garage-band instead and justify our total lack of technical skill by an appeal to how cool we look — punk rock!
PART THREE: The Hard Solution: Change America
Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most American of Americans ever to have lived. He was like the American Dream incarnate. I’ve read everything he has ever written many times over, and I plan to continue this practice until the day I die. I suggest you follow suit.
I love this dude, not so much because I’m interested in civil rights (who isn’t?), but because he got shit done. He focused directly on the HARD problem, and faced it. He did things the way Americans SAY they do things… except that he actually did.
MLK didn’t need to change laws, he needed to change America. Or, more accurately, he had to change Americans so that THEY would change America. That’s a hard problem. And yet, amazingly, it worked.
For as much as there is still to be done (which is substantial), it worked! America is a dramatically different place now than before MLK and his contemporaries started. If YOU want to get shit done, be like MLK: focus on the hard problem.
What If We Can’t Change The Culture?
You’re a defeatist. But, let me placate you: Focus on the teachers.
- Create an incentive structure that makes new mathematicians and scientists (the truest lovers of the subjects) WANT to teach young kids in Elementary and Middle-School. (I don’t care how you do it: money, beer, free chalk (math peeps love chalk!).)
Give the teachers MASSIVE LEEWAY to do whatever they see fit, with whatever curriculum they want to teach, and whatever text books they want to use. (Common Core, Traditional, No Child Left Behind, Voodoo, Magic Bones… it’s their choice. You don’t get a say in the matter.)
In short: hire well, then leave them alone. Treat teachers as the professionals they are, and you’ll be surprised and the positive changes in your kids. If we distrust our teachers, do you honestly believe a change in standards or curriculum is going to fix it?
Confession of a conflict of interest:
- My Dad is a teacher.
- My Mom is a teacher.
- My fiance Tamara is a teacher.
- My ex-wife is a teacher.
- Over 30% of my friends and family are teachers.
I trust them to teach our kids. Leave them alone, let them do their job. The meddling is making it worse, not better.
Conclusion: Bringing This Ship Back Around
Common Core makes us feel like we’re doing something productive. It gives politicians and policy makers something to run on (and in the future, something to run against). It makes our room LOOK clean, without actually have to clean it. It avoids the hard problems and makes the current problems worse.
If we want to save American kids from a life of mathematical-idiocy, it can’t come through a change in standards or curriculum — even if the new methods/standards/curriculum/ideas are very good.
- It is going to come through a change in mindset that will lead to Americans choosing to do hard things for their own sake.
It is going to come through a change in the incentive structures that will encourage young mathematicians and scientists to WANT to teach elementary and middle-school math to kids.
It will come through our admitting that teachers know how to teach better than we do — leave them alone.
It is going to come through a focus on the hard problems.
Until we change who we are, no curriculum on earth will save us.
Now go lift something heavy,