Thursday, January 1, 2015

Your Father’s Mathematics Teaching No Longer Works

Gender-challenged title courtesy of this famous 1988 Oldsmobile TV commercial:

The start of a New Year is traditionally a time when we resolve to make changes. Change is particularly imperative in US mathematics education, which is built on a (Nineteenth Century) pedagogic model that long since passed its expiry date.

In a nutshell, the school system we all grew up with was essentially developed in Nineteenth Century Britain to provided a global infrastructure to run the British Empire. In modern terms, the British Imperialists created an “Internet” and an “Internet of Things” using the best computational and manufacturing resources available at the time: people.

Controlled by an “Internet of human computers”: The British Empire in 1922.
Map from
While few of us in K-16 education today see it as merely a process to prepare young people for work, we inherited a system built to do just that.

Now we have an electronic, digital Internet, does it make sense to continue to use the old system?

What do Twenty-First Century citizens need from their education?

While not the only thing—not even close—equipping young people for work is still an important educational goal, both for the individual and for society as a whole. Accordingly, it makes sense for those of us in systemic education to be constantly aware of the skills that are actually required in the workplace. If those skills change, so should the education we provide.

A good place to start is by asking the leaders of the leading companies what they look for when hiring new employees. The table below shows us what skills the Fortune 500 companies were asking for in 1970, then again thirty years later in 1999.

Fortune 500 most valued skills, cited in
Linda Darling-Hammond et al, Criteria for High-Quality Assessment (2013)

It makes for dramatic reading. While the required skills ranked from 4 through 9 remained unaltered, the top three changed completely. The most important skill in 1970, writing, dropped to number 10, while skills two and three, computation and reading, respectively, dropped off the top ten list entirely.

The most important skill in the workplace at the start of the Twenty-First Century, according to those leading companies, is teamwork, which in a single generation had leapt up from number 10. The other two skills at the top, Problem Solving and Interpersonal Skills, were not even listed back in 1970.

Clearly, the world (of work) has changed, at least for those of us living in advanced societies. Unfortunately, for those of us in the United States, and many other parts of the world, our education system has failed to keep up.

In large part, this is because of the hard-to-avoid inertia that so often comes with national (or statewide) education systems. By and large, many politicians and bureaucrats are far less aware of rapidly changing workforce requirements than those in business, and politicians frequently pander to the often woefully uninformed beliefs of voters, who tend to resist change–especially change that will affect their children.

In the US, we see this dramatically illustrated by the widespread resistance to the Common Core State Standards. In the case of mathematics, just look at how closely the eight basic Mathematics Principles of the CCSS align to that Fortune 500 list of required Twenty-First Century skills:
  1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
  3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
  4. Model with mathematics.
  5. Use appropriate tools strategically.
  6. Attend to precision.
  7. Look for and make use of structure.
  8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.
The fact is, any parent who opposes adoption of the CCSS is, in effect, saying, “I do not want my child prepared for life in the Twenty-First Century.” They really are. Not out of lack of concern for their children, to be sure. Quite the contrary. Rather, what leads them astray is that they are not truly aware of how the huge shifts that have taken place in society over the last thirty years have impacted educational needs.

Having lived through those changes, parents have (for the most part) been able to build on their own education and cope with new demands. “What worked for me will work for my children,” they say. (They say that even when it patently did not work for them!)

But the situation is very different for their children. They are being thrust straight into that new world. To prepare them for that, you need a very different kind of education: one based on understanding rather then procedural mastery, and on exploration rather than instruction.

One of the best summaries of this societal change, and the resulting need for educational shift, that I know is the 22 minutes TED Talk Build a School in the Cloud, given by the educational researcher Sugata Mitra, winner of the 2013 TED Prize.

In his talk, not only does Mitra explain why we need to make radical changes to education, he provides examples, backed by solid evidence, of how a “Fortune 500 oriented,” team-based, exploratory approach works. In the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, Mitra conducted experiments in which he gave children in India access to computers. Without any instruction, they were able to teach themselves a variety of things, from English to DNA replication.

[See also Mitra’s earlier talk from 2010.]

Another good account of this need for educational change is provided by Sir Ken Robinson, also in a TED Talk (11 minutes).

These ideas are not new. Indeed, they are mainstream in educational research circles. They just have not permeated society at large.

For instance, Harvard physicist Eric Mazur has been teaching by Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL), to use one of several names for this general approach, for over twenty-five years, since he first noticed that instructional lectures simply do not work. He describes his approach, and the reasons for adopting it, in his 2009 talk Confessions of a Converted Lecturer (18 minutes, abridged version).

In mathematics, the IBL approach goes way back to the 1920s. I wrote about the best known proponent in two Devlin’s Angle posts back in 1999: May, June.

Moore’s ideas have been adapted and used successfully in present-day mathematics classrooms, as shown in the promotional video Creativity in Mathematics: Inquiry-Based Learning and the Moore Method (20 minutes).

Lest my account of R L Moore and that last video portrayal leaves you with the impression that IBL math is for bright college students, see also this WIRED magazine account of the success Mexican teacher Sergio Juárez Correa had when he took a Mitra inspired approach into a poor school in Matamoros, a city of half-a-million known more for its drug trade than for being at the forefront of Twenty-First Century mathematics education.

Remember, Bob Dylan sang this in 1964:


It’s long past time for the education system to catch up with the world outside the classroom. That should be our resolution for 2015.