Thursday, December 21, 2006

Math + Science = Value?

Roger Schank is at it again...

In his latest posting he goes against the conventional wisdom tide (big surprise..HA!) and argues that the old saw solution to all of the US's educational woes resting in teaching more math and science is simply misguided. He argues (my paraphrasing) that we are missing the forest for the trees in this obsession with more facts/figures/formulas.

The typical argument for why math & science are valuable is that they help students "learn how to think and reason". While I agree that this end may, in fact, be achieved through math and science exposure, it's a bit like arguing that a class in creative writing is valuable because it helps students to spell better. Sure, it's a side effect, but (a) is the end substantial justification for the means?, and (b) are there better, more direct methods of achieving the same end? Certainly there are a variety of routes towards the goal of "more people who can think", other than making everyone endure mandatory math and science classes that have questionable real-world relevance to most.

In the spirit of disclosure, I admit to having a background that is grounded in math and science (engineering and CS) and to reading the occasional math-related book for leisure. I like math and science and feel like my life is richer because of them. But here's the rub....

I probably would have taken about the same math/science courses, regardless of what was mandated, because I was interested in it! To force students who don't have similar native interests or vocational wishes that require such skills/knowledge to take much more than "daily survival skills math" (which probably tops out in middle school or early high school), under the guise of "teaching reasoning/logic" is simply a waste. A waste of time and energy on both ends of the experience (teacher/district time and money that clearly too rare and precious to squander, and student time and energy invested in something with so few tangible dividends), and a waste in the poisoning of any future interests in math/science these students may someday develop because of the bitter experience that this lock-step, decontextualized, forced-feeding results in.

As is Roger's way, he often argues to the extreme of the spectrum ("you couldn't get me to go back to college if you pointed a gun at me!" - Audio intro to Engines for Education) to provoke thought that leads to something more "reasonable". I add this latest rant of his to the same stack of his previous, controversial postings, but that doesn't discount or dismiss the validity of his core argument -

We do spend too much time/energy/money teaching things that are (supposedly) "good for you" via methods that would be as recognizable to George Washington as to George Bush, not because there is any real evidence or justification for it, but rather because it's familiar ("that's what I went through and I didn't turn out so badly, so...") and it's easy (what other rationale is there to explain the prevalence of multiple-choice questions/testing?).

It's time we revisit WHAT we teach, based on WHY it's of value to the core of the student population living in the 21st century, and HOW that material is best taught, and release old, pre-conceived notions of the answers that are based in the past.

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