Do we want serfs or citizens?

Occupy Math wants to look at student success in this week’s post. Past posts, like Why you should NEVER say “I’m not a math person”, have looked at this issue. This week we will look again at the misguided and awful theories of Andrew Hacker and contrast them with ideas of Stanford social psychologist Carol Dweck. Both these educational researchers have identified mathematics as the greatest barrier to high-school graduation, but they have diametrically opposed views of what to do about it. To summarize their views,

  • Hacker wants to teach most students only basic arithmetic, on the theory that is all they need.
  • Dweck has found ways of motivating students to learn math by helping them understand they can learn math.

Hacker would reduce most students to peons, Dweck wants to help them reach their potential.

Mathematics is a substantial barrier to high-school graduation for many students. More so minority and female students, but all sorts of students get a helping of this horrible dish. Both Hacker and Dweck are correct that this is a problem that needs to be solved. Hacker wants to solve the problem by giving up, a belief that is obviously, horribly wrong. As Occupy Math has noted before, this would require us to believe that we are the lesser descendants of a greater people, a version of the golden age myth. As self driving trucks and automatic factories remove the jobs that Hacker-trained students would fill, there is a greater and greater need to teach the kind of creativity and flexibility that come with figuring out mathematics and embracing general education.

Occupy Math learned of Dweck’s work through a New York Times article on her work. To hit the high points,

  • Students are discouraged by the belief that being smart is an intrinsic property when it isn’t. Your brain gets better at math and problem solving when you practice math and solve problems.
  • A teacher that tells students they can do better is believed — and the students try harder as a result.
  • Math performance can even be improved by the writing of aspirational essays before trying the math. The student’s attitude matters — and can be influenced.

These are not magic bullets. We also need math teachers with subject mastery who are given time and support by their principals and school boards — but they suggest that it is possible to succeed. Minority students are more likely to believe (with evidence) that the world is unfair and the deck is stacked against them. Female students suffer from the endless repetition of the myth that women cannot do mathematics. Countering these myths in the context of math class can help.

Another good article on this issue appears in The Atlantic, a publication Occupy Math has found to be a voice of reason in the math education debate. The author’s subtitle says Speed doesn’t matter, and there’s no such thing as a “math person.” Occupy Math both agrees and applauds. The article deals well with self-defeating features of the way Americans teach math. It deals with the myth that there are “math people”, and, by implication, non-math people. Occupy Math would like to thank Dennis Hillers for pointing this one out.

If we solve the problems of fear of math and hopelessness about personal mathematical ability, we get a gift that keeps on giving.

Once women and minorities can acquire math skills at the same rate as everyone else, they will pass those skills along to their children, as parents and as teachers, as role models and practitioners. Ignorance and lack of hope are self-sustaining drains on our wealth and potential, but the chain of despair can be broken. A critical point is the one where people believe they “are” or “are not” smart. As someone who has taught math for decades, Occupy Math is sure that effort pays off, that your ability to do math increases with practice, and that teachers can have a large impact on the amount that their student can learn. The mistakes we are making right now include:

  • Failing to support teachers financially, failing to give them adequate training, and failing to treat them with sufficient respect. Teachers have to raise money to buy classroom supplies, they are far too seldom permitted to update their skills, and they are subjected to incredible levels of administrative interference. The job “teacher” — in a K-12 school — has an appalling turnover rate.
  • The idea that some people are just smart and others are just stupid is a pernicious myth. There is some variation in native ability — but the largest part of how much a human being learns and accomplishes follows from the opportunities they encounter and their motivation. Dweck’s research supports this conclusion and it is not alone.
  • Hacker’s idea, and the larger idea of “functional education” — teaching people only what they “need to know” to be productive, compliant citizens — is elitist nonsense. It is impossible to know what education a person will need to be effective, productive, and happy in the future and so a large overdose is the only safe path.

We are entering a period where the only people on a factory floor will be managing robots and serving as troubleshooters. They will also be less numerous. The grocery stores in Occupy Math’s home town have a mix of checkers and robot payment stations — and we have fewer entry level jobs as a result. We have the technology to automate a significant fraction of all current jobs out of existence. The jobs that remain will require a lot of education, including communication ability, general knowledge, language skills and math. This means rejecting insane views like Hacker’s is critical at this point in the evolution of our culture. We don’t need to bury the math-skills problem, we need to solve it.

Occupy Math was motivated to write this post by observing that an appalling number of people who cannot do the math were led astray by hysterical media feedback loops in connection with the American election and now the United States has leadership that disagrees with most of the goals of Occupy Math.   Another advantage of rejecting Hacker’s idiotic ideas and embracing the work of Dweck and her colleagues who are trying to solve our math education problem is that it will strengthen freedom and democracy, at least in the long run. Occupy Math’s slogan “Math is the Right of All Free People” is more evident now than ever before in the opposition to freedom and hope that pervades the media. Comments and tweets, even (especially) opposing views, are always welcome!

I hope to see you here again,
Daniel Ashlock,
University of Guelph,
Department of Mathematics and Statistics

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