The wrong way to teach math

We’re teaching the wrong math. Montclair used to have the Interactive Math Program, also known as Chicago Math. It was great. I sat in on a bunch of classes and it was discovery math. It introduced a new concept with an idea rather than a skill. It would give problems that required skills the kids didn’t have. They tried to solve it without the skill, then learned the skill. It was math that stuck because it was MEANINGFUL. Think back to everything you learned in school. What did you remember? The answer is easy: that which was meaningful to you, that had some context, connection, some meaning to you attached to your present world. But they dropped it. Why? Because these kids were not as good on the SAT’s.

They were better math students, though. They might do better on the PARCC, I don’t know, but, in theory, that would be so. I am someone who found math pretty easy, but who began to really hate it when teachers would try to teach method instead of meaning. I had an AP BC Calc teacher who would put proof after proof on the board because of the elegance, but Calculus was designed as a tool to solve physics problems so that was how it should have been taught. So we shove Geometry and Algebra II and on and on down kids’ throats, most of whom will never need it, never use it, never remember it and never appreciate it. Math for much of us should be about taking information and analyzing it. There was an irony when we had that course. The principal at the time said it was great because 100% of the kids passed the HSPA. No control, no comparison, not a mathematically sound statement. Maybe they all would have passed in a regular math class! We keep on designing solutions, like particular tests (SAT, PARCC) looking for a problem, without questioning core assumptions. For most kids, there is a math that will be useful in their lives, and it is not this. I get preparing kids to be scientists and engineers, but the cost of preparing every kid to be a potential engineer is years of useless skills that are no more educational than learning chess and a lot less fun. Read Andrew Hacker, a math professor, who is much more articulate than me.


Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as or 973-919-6798.

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