Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Pox on the Real World

A recent New York Times article, How to Fix Our Math Education, proposes that we should make math teaching less abstract and more relevant to real-world applications.

This strikes me as the same anti-intellectual bias that causes reading teachers to prove "comprehension" by telling kids to find episodes in their own lives that relate to their reading. ("A Night to Remember, about the sinking of the Titanic, reminds me of the time I ... " what, exactly?)

The truth is that daily life is dull and boring. That's why we need an interior life. That's why we read books and do puzzles and watch movies and listen to music and write blogs.

Abstract math is beautiful and enjoyable because it is consistent, logical, and clean; in other words, totally unlike the real world.


  1. FedUpMom: I agree with you, as usual. I was the kind of kid who only began to enjoy math when it became more abstract (around grade 7). Current math pedagogy completely neglects this type of learner.

    I also like your analogy to current methods of teaching reading, or evaluating reading comprehension. Certain teachers, those who stuck to those methods religiously, were convinced my daughters couldn't read because they were too shy to respond appropriately to "prompts," such as "what does this make you think of?" (Or the books simply didn't remind them of anything they had experienced in their 7 years on the planet.) BTW, is there a name for this method of teaching/evaluating reading? I'm thinking of writing about it, if I ever emerge from summer mode, and get my blogging act together!

  2. northTOmom, you know you're always welcome to write a guest post for this blog!

    I'm looking for where the whole text-to-self garbage started, but I don't have an answer yet.

    I predict the next reading fad will be about analyzing "stamina" and "volume". I read about it in a comment here:

    Reading Logs for the Summer

  3. Thanks FedUpMom. If I write something I think might be of interest to your readers, I will let you know and you can cross-post it, if you wish. (Sometimes my posts deal with local educational issues, which would probably not be of general interest.)

    Thanks for the link to that discussion about reading logs. Quite illuminating. Stamina in reading! How ridiculous. Thank God you're around to challenge such people!

  4. northTOmom writes: "I also like your analogy to current methods of teaching reading, or evaluating reading comprehension. Certain teachers, those who stuck to those methods religiously, were convinced my daughters couldn't read because they were too shy to respond appropriately to "prompts," such as "what does this make you think of?"

    north, this isn't just bad teaching, it can have some pretty diastrous consequences. I'm still kicking myself I didn't know sooner so that I could have done something better. Like, pull her out.

    Case in point. My daughter was a very shy child. Also profoundly gifted. I say that not to brag, I don't go for that, but just to paint you a picture. She was in private kindergarten and bored to tears. Boredom made her retreat to her inner world which was infinitely more interesting.

    The class was reading aloud. As my daughter's turn drew nearer, she became anxious about reading aloud and momentarily lost her place. When it got to be her turn, she faltered as she searched the page. The teacher decided she couldn't read and skipped over her. My daughter, this shy quiet five year old, was mortified. So that when her turn came around again, she mumbled.

    Teacher just assumed she couldn't read and stuck her in the LOWEST reading group. She was reading Harry Potter type books! (She didn't latch on to Harry Potter until the next year because the books were just debuting.) We didn't know any of this.

    Since daughter always came home unhappy and began to whine that everything was too easy, we began to pry. She doesn't turn on a dime but we gently persisted and asked her lots of questions and it came out.

    We advocated and lobbied but the school was not convinced she was ready. Oh, for god's sake. Bring the kid in, she'll read to you, you'll see where she is. And so they did.

    Much damage had already been done. Another Exhibit A on why, if you can, homeschool. It was a nice little school. As compared to other privates, the ten thousand dollars was a "steal." But cheap does not come cheap. I could have spent a third of that money and done three thirds as good on my own, thank you very much.

  5. Hi HomeworkBlues! Thanks for sharing your experience. What amazes me is they way some teachers eschew common sense when assessing students' reading ability. Obviously, certain very popular methods, e.g., those that try to solicit so-called meta-cognitive connections, are not appropriate for all kids. They are especially inappropriate for introverts like my daughter E. (Both my daughters were in grade 2 when what I described above occurred, and both were reading well, and fluently at home. One was reading Little Women.) Fortunately, for us, my daughters only had the one teacher who was so enamoured of the newer reading comprehension pedagogy that she could not see that the girls were strong readers. The next year they had a wonderful teacher, who immediately recognized their strengths in reading and writing, so I don't think there was a lot of damage done. They both love to read, but they both hate the way reading/writing is taught at school. I'm currently writing a blog piece on this sad contradiction.

    Homeschooling is something I wish I had tried early on. Unfortunately, at this point, my daughters are not willing to entertain the idea (and I'm not sure I could manage it). They have built strong friendships in their French Immersion class (same kids since grade 4), and they feel that homeschooling would separate them too much from their friends. (They start middle school next week-God help us!)

  6. northTOmom -- Here's an interesting post on introverted kids that I came across a while ago (by a homeschooler, actually). (Come to think of it, I wonder if I discovered it through one of your posts . . .)

    I'm looking forward to your next post.

  7. This is interesting-I agree that this is not the kind of method that works for all kids (although I'd argue that the math thing is very much a question of preference. If you take a look at Temple Grandin's TED talk, she complains that she was not allowed to move on to geometry in school because she never mastered algebra-when, in fact, because she's such a concrete thinker, she would have done well in geometry. algebra was too abstract for her).

    The reading thing is something I've encountered a lot in trying to self-educate to teach reading-the theory behind it is that this is something good readers do without thinking (i.e., oh, where have I heard that word before? why is this character feeling like this?), and so the theory is to teach it (also kids who are used to reading material that's totally disconnected from their real lives sometimes benefit from being prompted a little to make those connections). I'd say it can be done badly or well-the titanic example you give does seem pretty silly. If I was teaching about the titanic, I'd probably ask if anyone knew someone who never believed they could make a mistake. Or I'd talk about what they knew about Hurricane Katrina (who got into the lifeboats? the rich, after all). Or if they had boat experiences. I don't think of it as anti-intellectual, though-that's interesting. One of the most rewarding things about reading to me is the idea that in someone totally far away or in totally different circumstance, there could be something that I recognize from my own life or feelings. I'm always excited when my students can see themselves in what we read-I feel like it means they're having an involving reading experience. (I wouldn't assume that every student will verbalize that out loud, though-that does seem to be an issue. There's no reason shy kids can't draw or write or show understanding in some other way)

  8. Well, and I also wouldn't assume that every kid sees him/herself in every piece of writing. Although I try to pick pieces that lend themselves to that in some way.

  9. Chris -- Thanks for the link to that interesting post. (I don't think you discovered it through one of my posts, but given the state of my memory, who knows?!) It describes my daughter, E, perfectly. Interestingly, her twin sister, J, is on the shy side, but not really an introvert. That post helped me understand that shyness and introversion are not the same thing.

    democracy's edge -- I found what you said about the theory behind current methods of teaching reading interesting: good readers are assumed to do certain things (for example, make "self-to-text" connections), so teachers decide to teach them. I'm currently researching and trying to write about this. The problem, as I see it, is that these descriptivist theories of reading don't necessarily lend themselves particularly well to prescriptivist pedagogies. But I think I should do a bit more research before I comment further...

  10. Wow, democracy's edge, I'd have to say that my favorite reading (and movie watching, for that matter) is precisely the stuff that doesn't relate to my own experience. I read as an escape.

    For instance, I'm reading the Matthew Shardlake mysteries, set in Tudor England. It's the sense of being in another world, completely foreign to my own, that I like.

  11. The stuff I steer clear of is "chick" movies like Sleepless in Seattle (never seen it and hope I never do) and "mom lit" about suburban mothers. Yuck. It's bad enough I have to live it, I don't want to read about it too!

  12. Sleepless was okay but cotton candy. You're not missing anything. I second the YUCK on reading about suburban moms. Once is enough.

  13. PsychMom says:

    I third the motion about suburban mom themes. I also pass by the books that have mental illness and horrible childhood trauma as themes.....

  14. If we are constantly thinking about ourselves, we'll go mad....we go unconscious for 8 hours out of the 24 for a damn good reason.

  15. That's really interesting that all of you feel that way about books...I think I"m totally the opposite. What I read is not necessarily stuff that matches my real life in a surface way, but I do like reading stuff about people I can relate to. (i.e., I grew up in a really oppressive, counter-logical religion, so I love memoirs about Communist China and Russia?) We're doing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in class right now because I feel like that's the same for my students-they obviously are not knights, but a lot of the issues of honor and face-saving ring true to them. So far they seem to like it, although they are quite critical of medieval bathing habits.
    I do read stuff just for escape too, though-I really like British murder mysteries:) Maybe I'll try the Shardlake mysteries, FedUpMom. I"m on Christopher Fowler's "Peculiar Crimes Unit" mysteries right now.