Entertaining ourselves out of Math

What killed our interest in math?

Is it our love for instant gratification? Or was it our ability to outsource our left brain to ‘calculating machines?’

No excuses are good enough. After all, the country that created the first graphing calculator, Japan, ranks 5th place in Math in the ‘PISA’ test (Programme for International Student Assessment), which tests Mathematics, Reading and Science among 15-year-olds in 72 countries. The test is administered every three years. In this latest ranking, the US, unfortunately is nowhere in sight.

pisa-rankings-2016In Math, we are way below Malta, the Czech Republic and Vietnam and some 40 other nations. In Reading, we rank 24th, with countries such as Estonia, and Macao doing better. Singapore tops Math, Reading and Science. What killed math in the US?

I only ask this question because we are in the midst of student evaluation, and I am seeing an increase in student’s interest in programming. Yes, math is hard, but we seem to be entertaining ourselves to death, with ‘watching’ more than doing. Coding, and using mathematical concepts requires students to work through a problem. An ‘algorithm‘ is after all a mathematical construct.

This unhappy news of declining performance comes despite us having excellent hands-on, interactive resources such as Khan Academy. One recommendation is to “teach a lot less but focus at much greater depths,” says the director of education and skills at OECD.

Buried deep in the report are some good indicators of what works in the successful countries. It says, for instance that

students score higher in science when they reported that their science teachers “explain scientific ideas”, “discuss their questions” or “demonstrate an idea” more frequently.

and that raising students’ expectations of working “in a science-related occupation” have greater bearing on the outcomes than material and human resources.

Translated. Investing in new books or fancy devices won’t move the needle unless schools empower (and hire) teachers who could passionately ‘explain’ and ‘discuss’ the subject matter.

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