Thursday, February 3, 2011

What's so Progressive About "Constructivist" Math?

The makers of "constructivist" math curricula like Everyday Math and Trailblazers have marketed themselves very cleverly as promoting progressive education. Then, anyone who criticizes the program can be labeled "anti-progressive" and effectively ignored.

They also crow about their "integrated" approach, which, in theory, makes math "relevant" to other subjects like language arts and social studies, but, in practice, just leads to piles of dull, pointless work that doesn't teach math. The fact that the inventors of these curricula think that math needs to be made "relevant" to other subjects betrays their bias; they don't like or appreciate math on its own terms.

There's nothing "progressive" about 3d-grade homework like "write a multiplication story about 6 x 4". Suggested solution: "We had a birthday party for one of my best friends. I had pizza and ice cream. When we were all done we opened up presents and sang happy birthday. Then her mom gave all 6 of us at the party 4 tokens each to use at the arcade games. That is 24 games that we played."

I'd estimate that the physical act of writing this out would take an average third-grader at least a half-hour. They're supposed to illustrate it too. If you add in time for the inescapable whining, complaining, cajoling, and nagging, you've used up at least an hour of your evening for your kid to learn a math fact that they could have written in numbers in about 30 seconds. (For quicker results, I recommend the FedUpMom solution: take 5 minutes to send the teacher an e-mail explaining why your kid won't be doing the homework.)

What is "progressive" about teaching 5 different methods of subtraction, each more laborious and less universal than the traditional algorithm, and skipping the traditional algorithm altogether, as Everyday Math does? It can't be called "constructivist" either, since the algorithms must be taught by the teacher. Actually, if it was truly constructivist and you just asked the kids to invent their own method, they'd probably do a better job.

I'd like to decouple the issue of Everyday Mathematics and Trailblazers from the progressive vs. traditional ed. debate. I can't stand Everyday Math and Trailblazers, but it's not because I'm a hidebound traditionalist; it's because they are just bad curricula that do a terrible job of teaching math.

1 comment:

  1. FedUpMom, as you know, that is one of my beefs with so-called constructivist math as well. (I say "so-called" because there's a very good case to be made that these programs have nothing to do with true constructivism.) That it advertises itself, or is advertised by its promulgators, as progressive annoys me to no end. How can a program that turns the vast majority of kids (including the most able ones) off math be considered progressive?

    This is why I suggest people check out the works of mathematician John Mighton. In his two books and in his math program for kids (JUMP), he has critiqued prevailing "constructivist" or "discovery" math pedagogy from an emphatically progressive perspective.