[Edu-sig] On the front page

Stephen R. Figgins fig@oreilly.com
Thu, 27 Apr 2000 09:34:47 -0700

>The front page article in todays New York Times on the controversy
>surrounded the nations
>math curriculum probably does not tell many of us anything which we don't
>much well know.

You can find this article at 


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I found the chart (link at the top) funny.  The traditional math was
what was described as "new math" when I was a kid.  Tom Lehrer has a
great song about it.  But I digress.  :-) 

So, what I hear Art saying is that dumbing down programming is not
perhaps, the best way to teach CP4E, and he feels that pushing Alice
as educational is dumbing down programming.  He suggests it is a fun
toy, and a good use of python, but far from educational.  Sort of like
the Flexble New Math described in the NYT.

Actually the thing that I find irksome is the thought that one
curriculum could suit everyone.  That there is one right way to learn
math.  Burried in the article is the line "One obvious solution is to
mix a bit of both."  Well, sure.  Or mix a bit of everything.

I have been editing an introduction to Matrix Math and Numerical
Python to be launched next week on the Python DevCenter.  I was a real
math head when I was younger, but a few years of highschool education
educated that love right out of me.  Later on in college I revisited
Calculus and had a grand time.  The book's method was pretty much the
same.  It didn't really work for me.  But the instructor was great.
He told us stories about the forumlas, where they came from, who the
people were that discovered them.  He walked us through how the
formulas were discovered.  He set things in a historical context.

Well, anyway, inspired by what I might be able to do with NumPy, I
checked out a couple dozen books from the library on Math, looking to
understand Matrices and Linear Algebra.  Ugh!  What a lot of boring
material there is out there!  Pretentious too, loaded with terms that
they don't really bother to define.  There is a horrible barrier to
learning this stuff.  But I have found a couple good books in there,
but the point is probably that I am inspired to learn this.  And
because I am inspired, I will learn it.

Ah, but what inspires me, may not be what inspires you.  Inspiring a
love of math or a love of programming is not something that can be
placed in any curriculum.  It is a rare gift that some instructors
have, not nearly enough.  Some writers have it too, but they are even
rarer.  If you want children interested in math you can't just teach
them formulas and tricks.  You have to find what interests them, what
they want and need to do, and encourage that growth.  Assist them in
their learning.  

Inspired people with access to knowledge and people to assist them
when they ask cannot be stopped from learning.  They will seek out the
maximum cognitive load.  They will learn.  Those with no interest in
the material will learn what they need to get by, and no more.
Dumbing math down from where it is only helps them get by with less.
The problem is not that math is too hard, it is that most see it as
uninspiring drill work, a lot of useless memorization of forumlas they
will never need to know.  And they are pretty damn close to right.
You can get by without knowing it.

But knowing it, you could be a success.  That is the story we need to
tell.  Math is rich, and can make you rich, famous even, or at least
give you better odds at succeeding.  Why settle for getting by?

I think there should be an immense initiative to train instructors in
story telling, and give them access to great stories to tell.  There
should be summer story workshops for them.  Let a good quarter of
their time be spent telling stories, another part in constructing math
labs, and math contests, I bet you would see an incredible increase in
the math abilities of our children.

You want children to learn programming, learn to tell programming
stories.  Give them good programming tools and tutorials and set them
loose to create their own projects.  Have open source style
competitions.  Have them work not just in the schools, but in the real
world too.  If it is going to be a common literacy, it has to be very
visible, and the benefits of knowing it have to be obvious, everything
around us should remind us of those benefits.  If not, it will remain
a minority interest.