September 18, 2008

Holy Shit and Oh My God

Problem: how to maximise the intelligence of the growing brain?

Question: is constant and repetitive drill of basic math computation making children smarter?

A Loop: these two thoughts entwined in my brain forming a mobius strip of agony.

Yesterday, my friend and I had a polite chat. She was talking about this new school year for her son and questioning me about our schooling. We arrived quickly at the twain between us. She believes that the institutional study of math makes kids smarter over time. I believe that unschooling makes kids smarter over time. (Both of these stances implied in the conversation. Both unsaid.) And I woke up rehashing elementary education theory once again. As I am want to do, again and again and again. The conversation wasn't a big deal. But this question is huge for me. Is unschooling elementary math a disservice to my children? Am I a fool bent on raising fools? Can I seriously stay this unschooling course, when my nephew spent part of his summer practicing handwriting and math in continuation of his school year last year and in preparation for this current year? I was aghast that he be made to study between forth and fifth grade. I mean, Come On! And here is my friend's son, studying so well in fifth grade. My children, meanwhile, are in the barn.

Here's the thing. Children practice and drill these facts so they can prove themselves competent within their school system. If you remove them from the system, can anyone prove the drill is important or even helpful?

I understand that math is innate in the universe. Math is not invented, but rather, discovered. And the word "math" is actually the name of a language we ascribe to this phenomenon. So the study of math is really the study of a language. I know the accumulation of language is good for our developing brains.

I think the way this language is taught, institutionally, in the United States, is actually damaging. I want my kids to apprehend the phenomenon under the language, in the same way we communicate on a human level over and above words. Such that I can understand and communicate with a Chinese baby, a Mexican baby, and a Russian baby, even though I don't speak their native words. We can grasp and manipulate mathematical concepts without formal drill of computational language. And I think, humans arrive at a richer and deeper understanding of the language when children are given the time, space, and exposure to interact with these concepts in the real world. The finer specifics of math language can be acquired as easily and quickly as any other language. Which is to say, in about a year if immersed. And much faster for many people.

What does that say for all the children with their heads bent to Formica desks right this minute?

I discussed all of this over coffee with my husband this morning. And I went to my computer to write about it. But first I went to the New York Times to reread an article about Sarah Palin which was going to be deftly and craftily worked into this topic. Instead I found my HolyShitOMG moment. I swear, academia is going to catch up to my breathtaking cutting edge theories and prove me right one day. Just you all wait. The money and the honorary degrees are going to just flood in here... right? Well, I'll be happy if my children function well in which ever society and life they choose.

Gut Instinct’s Surprising Role in Math Function ~Natalie Angier

"One research team has found that how readily people rally their approximate number sense is linked over time to success in even the most advanced and abstruse mathematics courses. Other scientists have shown that preschool children are remarkably good at approximating the impact of adding to or subtracting from large groups of items but are poor at translating the approximate into the specific. Taken together, the new research suggests that math teachers might do well to emphasize the power of the ballpark figure, to focus less on arithmetic precision and more on general reckoning..."

"Dr. Halberda, who happens to be Dr. Feigenson’s spouse, relishes the work’s philosophical implications. “What’s interesting and surprising in our results is that the same system we spend years trying to acquire in school, and that we use to send a man to the moon, and that has inspired the likes of Plato, Einstein and Stephen Hawking, has something in common with what a rat is doing when it’s out hunting for food,” he said. “I find that deeply moving.”


Heather said...

Well, sure, they can learn to understand math in their own way, but how will they learn algebra?? And more importantly, how will you KNOW they've learned it unless they can reproduce it about 5000 times?

Karin said...

You might be interested in how Montessori teaches math. I don't know much about it myself, only that the kids are given very concrete, touchable materials that illustrate math concepts (beads, etc.). And Isabel LOVES math ... she will often, for fun, ask us to quiz her on math problems, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, etc. Whether this is the result of Montessori, I don't know ... maybe she is just math-brained.

Katherine said...

I think Maria Montessori was an Italian teacher in the early 1900s who thought the standard rote type of learning was an affront to children's intelligence? And she designed a school based on hands-on work, so the children are always learning through their hands? I think I remember that correctly. The Montessori schools I have seen are all adorable. And I'm glad Isa is doing well. She is so bright.

Heather, I want to respond but I can't tell if you are being sarcastic? It's kind of funny because that statement, the way you put it, could genuinely represent both sides of the fence either speaking sarcasticly or straight up.

I draw a steady line with my unschooling theories between elementary school and highschool. Of course, this may change as my children age... But for me, the question of elementary school is how to nurture intelligence and humanity and socialisation. Manners are so much more important to me, at this stage, than math or some such. But at times I can feel the old indoctrination of my own education clutching at my ankles.

Heather said...

Katherine, it was sarcasm. And I had a lengthy second paragraph going, but I was pulled from the computer suddenly, so just posted that snarky response with an intention to return. Here was what I was going to add:

I think you might be surprised how progressive school *teachers* are, certainly at college level and recent graduates. Even college Elementary Ed professors are talking constantly about normal brain development, hands-on learning, different learning styles, learning through play, etc. I heard about Maria Montessori from a friend when she was majoring in Elementary Ed in college.

The problem is, once those Wonderful Teachers with Wonderful Ideas get into they school system, they figure out they have no real control over how their classroom is run. They could make changes at an administrative level, but by the time they get there, they've been sucked into the insanity of drilling and testing = learning. When there are studies showing they're doing it wrong, it takes years to convince all the different tendrils of the monster that a change in philosophy needs to happen. And then, they'll have to design a state-approved curriculum around that particular philosophy. And have meetings about "oversight" and "accountability"...


See why I didn't have time to finish earlier? You sure have a way to trigger HUGE amounts of words filling my head.

Anonymous said...

Our younger son has been taking math courses from a fabulous teacher at the local homeschool resource center--she's an artist as well as a natural-born mathematician. She passed along this piece, A Mathematician's Lament (warning: 25-page PDF) to the parents of her students several months ago. It's a wonderful, and slightly heartbreaking, rant about the way math is "taught" in classroom schools these days. I passed it on to my mom (a public school teacher for the last 20+ years), and she said it nearly reduced her to tears. A good, convicting read, and one that was able to bring home some of the beauty of mathematics even for a largely innumerate mathophobe like myself.