We’re continuing to host commenters from across a vast philosophical divide (including the co-authors of The Atlantic article under discussion) commenters who are unlikely to share the same physical space any time soon. People have largely kept it together and you’d have to be a committed ideologue not to walk away with a better understanding of the people who disagree with you.
I haven’t been able to shake one particular exchange, though.
Halfway through the comments, two people who disagree with each other as completely as anyone could each made a precise and articulate case for their diametrically opposite theories of learning.
Ze’ev Wurman, a longtime advocate of traditional math instruction:
I thought the purpose of a problem in a classroom is to check whether a student knows sufficient math to solve it, rather than learn bout the nature of human thinking processes. If it is the latter, Dan is completely right, except it belongs to cognitive science experiment rather than a classroom.
Brett Gilland, an infrequent blog commenter who should comment more frequently:
I can not disagree with this enough. The purpose of a problem in my classroom is almost always to understand the nature of that human’s thinking processes. This allows for amplification, further investigation into how the student is able to navigate similar problems with subtle variations and complications, and attempts to draw student mental models into internal conflict to create pressure for remediation and revision of said mental models.
I suspect that Gilland’s employer, and certainly the parents of his students, would also disagree. Some quite strongly. The primary purpose of school is to educate the kids at hand, not to train the teacher. This doesn’t mean that teachers do not learn from experience, but if gaining experience and insight is the primary reason for what the teacher does, he’d better get approval from an IRB and a waiver from each individual student or parent that attend his class.
Funny thing, that. My employer, my parents, my students, my district, the state evaluator for my school, etc. all support my teaching. Most quite strongly. This might be due to the fact that when most people hear “I work really hard to understand your child’s thought processes so that I can better guide their thinking and draw out subtleties and conflicting mental models,” they don’t think “Oh my God, that man is performing experiments on my child to improve his educational practice.” Instead, they think “Oh my God, that man really cares about what is going on inside my child’s head and is attempting to tailor instruction to what he finds there. Thank goodness he isn’t stuck with a teacher who believes that teaching is just lectures interspersed with quizzes to determine if my child gets it or needs to be droned at more with another utterly useless generic explanation that takes no account of what my particular child is thinking!”
I’m sure that everyone walked away feeling like their side won, but one side is wrong about that.
“Every school should be organized so that the teachers are just as much learners as the students are.” (Adding It Up, 2001, pg. 13)
Alas, I feel that Mathematics is reaching a junction — in which the traditionalists and the progressives must come to a head and work together to forge a stronger future for our young mathematicians! Whilst today’s world demands an ability to think and to use available resources to find new meaning, we must not forget those who generated those resources in the first place. a fine craftsman needs to learn the tools of his trade before he or she can produce the creative thinking in his head. A computer programmer must use efficient logic before we can play those game or use those apps to be progressive learners. To what degree should thinking, reasoning, and problem solving come before skills acquisition , or vice versa? Sound like the chicken and the egg to me.
My biggest fear for us as teachers is that we are robbing our young people of the beauty and passion for maths through repetitive, applied drill, just so that they can demonstrate a high level skill skill that they will never use. or, we are not providing enough technical skills to enough of our students to ensure quality craftsmanship I am saddened every single time that my best mathematics students tell me they want to study medicine or dentistry instead of using their mathematical ability to grow our field.
Let us first and foremost provide our students with mathematical challenge- that requires both the creative solution and advanced skills acquisition. Whether the challenge be abstract or modelling a real situation need not matter. What is important is bringing back the passion for mathematics that we, as mathematics educators share, passion- through intrinsic motivational challenge and drive.