The Stupidity of the “Math Wars”

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Unless you’re a professor of education, you may not have noticed that for the last several decades a war has been raging between math education reformers and those from the traditional camp. Their disagreement boils down to one simple question: should students learn traditional computational algorithms (like the division algorithm for two numbers)? Reformers believe that achieving computational fluency is secondary to developing thinking, while traditionalists argue that not only are the basic arithmetic algorithms a fundamental part of mathematics, but that their mastery enables students to progress in the subject.

The historical roots of this conflict are irrelevant to us because like many social policy debates, it is heavily politicized. A more pertinent issue is how does all of this affect parents, teachers, and students. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Alice Crary and W. Stephen Wilson offer an interesting analysis of the false dichotomy created by this ideological battle and come to an obvious conclusion: facility with mechanical mathematical procedures is inseparable from mathematical thinking. A student can’t develop abstract reasoning abilities without being able to easily manipulate the numbers and symbols that represent that reasoning.

Crary and Wilson point out that studying mathematics while de-emphasizing computation is like studying history without the actual historical facts. Even if historians have developed a way of thinking about their subject, they cannot do so without reference to specific facts. Similarly, both professional mathematicians and students of mathematics need to be comfortable with a certain set of basic computation techniques and a body of fundamental facts, before they can either prove new theorems or learn new material.

If you’re a parent or teacher, you need to give your kids an opportunity to practice algebraic and arithmetic computation and at the same time, let them work on challenging non-standard problems that develop their thinking. For a thorough treatment of the computational side of K-8 mathematics we suggest starting with James Milgram’s The Mathematics Pre-Service Teachers Need to Know, and if you need a textbook right away, Singapore Math is a solid choice. For developing problem solving skills and mathematical maturity, we’ve already mentioned a few excellent places to start. The most important takeaway from the “math wars”, is to stay away from standard US math textbooks and to steer clear of anything that has the word reform in it or looks like it was written without any input from well-known professional mathematicians.

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