Thursday, February 4, 2010

In which a near-fuckup on my part explains why no one knows anything.

As a substitute teacher, your job mostly bears little resemblance to teaching, because you're constrained by teachers' instructions, which assume that you're not qualified to teach, because most substitutes aren't. Occasionally, teachers don't leave lesson plans ("lesson plans" is the euphemism of choice for "worksheets"), which at least gives you the option of actually teaching.

Today I was given that option, in a special-ed science class that had just transitioned from chemistry to physics. Another teacher in the science department suggested that I might talk to them about unit conversions.

I started class -- once we'd talked a little about what they'd done so far -- by asking them if they knew how many meters were in a kilometer. Most of them didn't. I started to talk about how many meters actually were in a kilometer, before thinking to stop and ask, "Do you guys know how big a meter is? Can you hold your hands up about a meter apart?"

Blank stares.

I had been ready to teach kids about how to convert between two concepts which might, as far as they were concerned, have been imaginary.

I got to thinking about the implications of this when I read an LA Times piece about how frequently journalists confuse "million" and "billion. It features the following assessment of the causes of the problem, by a professor of statistical literacy:
Schield, who is about to publish a research paper on statistical literacy for journalists, said journalists are failed by an educational system that doesn't distinguish well between math and quantitative literacy, and they're not alone.
The implication here is that, if the educational establishment were only aware that mathematics was different from quantitative literacy, we would be better at teaching the latter.

But from looking at what I was doing, it seems obvious that the problem was precisely that I was aware that mathematics (used in the narrow sense of "skill at manipulating quantities") and numeracy (here, in the sense of "ability to make meaning out of numerical expression") were distinct, and that my job was to teach the mathematics, rather than to teach quantitative literacy.

My experience in education classes backs up a thousand times over the idea that if math teachers believe that something isn't math, they won't fucking teach it. It's someone else's job. English teachers aren't teaching math, so why would we teach kids how to read? And ultimately, it's this disjointedness, this sense of subjects as distinct, that gives rise to our troubles with quantitative literacy in the first place. If we had never decided that mathematics could be done without attention to the meanings of the numbers -- if we had kept our teaching of mathematics tied to our efforts to solve actual problems -- we would recognize that mathematics, to the extent that it is useful*, is inseparable from quantitative literacy, and from scientific reasoning, and even from social justice (to the extent that how you represent, quantify and measure something has significant political implications).

It's not easy to reverse these thought patterns. It seems clear to me, though, that adding a new subject called quantitative literacy won't help in any deep sense. What it will do is create a new set of things that aren't anyone's job in particular: Is the process of looking at a graph and using it to sketch a line of fit quantitative literacy, or mathematics? How about using that line to extrapolate the trend shown? Choosing how to draw the graph to effectively show your data is quantitative literacy, but the decision of what the graph should show probably grows out of your experiment, which is science -- and the actual numerical analysis of that data is math, but describing the results of that data is back to quantitative literacy. And what about aesthetic decisions about your graphs? Some graphs, in addition to being effective, are also beautiful -- should quantitative literacy teachers be teaching that too, or is that the job of art teachers? (Remember when we had those?) And just how quantitative does something have to be before the English teacher can safely ignore it? Or do you read different parts of the same piece in different classes?

Creating new departments and new classes doesn't solve anything. The endless partitioning of knowledge, starting at younger and younger ages, hurts people.

Please don't take this as disparaging pure math. I love pure math. But pure math should never be considered necessary for life, and should always be treated as optional. To the extent that we believe all kids should take math, we cannot be talking about pure math.

1 comment:

  1. Hey there, I found your blog off of SWPD. I'm an undergrad in a Canadian univeristy and lately I've found politics and my life's passions (both are basically the same thing at this point) have really started to burn inside me. I took a Myers-Briggs test the other day - could feel my personality wasn't the old me (ENFP) - and I scored a different type: an ENFJ, which is The Teacher. Anyway, to save you the life story, this post really epitomizes the feeling and passion that I discovered in me to teach. I think the issues you bring up in this post and your strength of voice in conveying your points are very powerful and I wanted to let you know that I really feel you on this one.

    Sounds like subbing for that class was a very valuable, worthwhile experience in terms of learning on your part. Go teachers!



To the extent possible under law, the person who associated CC0 with this work has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to this work.

However, he believes you have a moral obligation to comply with the restrictions of the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.

Look here for clarification.