Newsletter #149     Math Wars Re-visited [AWM]

This is an education column that will appear in the next edition of the Newsletter of the Association for Women in Mathematics -- you get a preview!

Math Wars Re-visited

Seven years ago I wrote a column entitled “Math Pacifism”, detailing the ways in which the Math Wars were masking a very large area of agreement among interested parties []. That was before the Math Wars arrived in my state. I recently returned to that column, expecting as a battle-scarred veteran to be embarrassed by the naïve babblings of my uninitiated self. I was indeed a little embarrassed, but far more strongly than that, I was saddened. Nothing has changed about the areas of agreement, or about the huge benefit that would result if we could sit down and find ways to strengthen those areas and to deal with the others. What has changed is my understanding of how a few ideologues can successfully polarize a whole community and convince multitudes from parents to legislators that any problem in K-12 mathematics results from “reform math”, and the only solution is to stamp out any changes that have been brought about by it.

My first really clear indicator that I had arrived on completely unfamiliar turf came when I told someone with whom I had spent several hours discussing some of the issues that I wanted to continue talking even though neither of us had yet convinced the other on any of our points of discussion. “You won’t when you hear what I have to say about you in tonight’s talk”, was the reply. That turf has now become familiar, and I have learned a certain amount about navigating it. Only a limited navigation, though. How do you deal with

A charismatic local scientist who is so convinced that the abysmal results on a math quiz he gave to students in his liberal arts science course result from Integrated Math (a term that encompasses without differentiation every textbook so labeled) that he sees no need to ask the students in question what textbook their high school used or how many years of math they took (until recently only two were required) or how recently they had taken any math at all;
A group who, when invited as guests to an informal discussion of the issues at hand, initiates the conversation with: “Dr. Warfield, do you admit that you wrote the following:…” Fortunately a colleague was there who reminded me of the context in which, five or six years before, I had indeed written the sentence quoted;
A web page and blog that maintain a steady stream of adversarial prose, some of it flat out false;
A well-funded lobbying effort that adopts the tactics honed by the national generals and admirals of the Math Wars to convince many legislators that the anti-reform group is the only source of truth about mathematics education?

We should, of course, be politically active ourselves – and we are beginning to be. But that’s not something that comes naturally to a bunch of professors and classroom teachers and parents who are just beginning to realize that the programs we value are in danger of being completely wiped out.

Something that would come more naturally if we could figure out how to do it would be talking with the many, many members of the group who have legitimate concerns and would be entirely willing to have the kind of conversation I described. With them we might make some real progress if we could once succeed in disabusing them of the image of our character and our beliefs with which they have continuously been presented.

In the midst of these harrowing times, a wonderful ray of sunshine appeared last summer, and I am doing my best to spread it around. Jo Boaler, an eminent Mathematics Education researcher, published a book entitled “What’s Math Got to Do with It?”, with subtitle “Helping Children Learn to Love Their Least Favorite Subject – and Why It’s Important for America”. Boaler’s first objective is to describe for a lay audience just what it means to have students really engaged in doing mathematics, and what that engagement can do for their learning. As she says, “The classroom characteristics that I am arguing for in this book are not at either of the poles of a “traditional” or “reformed” debate, and they could take place in any math classroom or home because they are all about being mathematical.” [p. 11] She has done longitudinal studies in both England and the United States, following students through several years. Each study worked with a pair of schools that were matched in socio-economic status and other such characteristics, but differing in that one taught math in the traditional format and the other gave students the opportunity to “be mathematical”. Her drive to give students that opportunity derives from what she found. Since she is able to illustrate her points with real classroom observations, she is far more convincing than most of us could be. It’s hard to imagine not wanting such an opportunity for one’s child.

In addition, Boaler, in her eight years at Stanford University, encountered some of the most appalling attacks in the Math Wars, some on her as a researcher and others on schools where the teaching philosophy she espouses was present. Since she is now back in England, she can speak freely, and she does. It’s a clearer view of what we are dealing with than one can generally find.

I assigned the reading of this book as a project for a number of my pre-service teaching students last fall. Uniformly they approached it with heavy skepticism, and equally uniformly they came out reporting in startled tones that they really enjoyed reading the book, and they thought everyone in the world should read it. By way of endorsing their theory, let me give you the details on the book:

Title: What’s Math Got to Do With It

Author: Jo Boaler

Publisher: Viking

ISBN: 978-0-670-01952-6


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