Can Math Be Made Fun?

April 12, 2012, 9:45 am

This article in the Chicago Tribune talks about efforts to make math fun:

In the American drive to boost science and math education, it’s science that has all the kid-friendly sizzle: Robots and roller coasters, foaming chemical reactions, marshmallow air cannons.

Math has… well, numbers.

“America has a cultural problem with math. It’s the subject, more than any other, that we as a country love to hate,” said Glen Whitney, a passionate mathematician who worked for years developing algorithms for hedge funds. “We don’t see it as dynamic. It’s rote and boring and done by dead Greek guys a thousand years ago.”

The article goes on to talk about some efforts to spice up math, including MIT’s Labyrinth tournament, DimensionU‘s celebrity-driven “DU the Math” competition, the Museum of Mathematics in New York, and Danica McKellar‘s various book and lecture projects. This is all well and good, but:

[V]eteran math teacher J. Michael Shaughnessy says it will take more than good PR to boost math’s appeal. It will take a cultural revolution.

Every time he hears a parent tell a child, “I’ve done fine without math,” or “You don’t really need to know that,” he quietly but urgently interrupts.

“That gives kids permission not to try hard at a subject that’s really challenging for everyone,” said Shaughnessy, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “It’s doing national damage.”

I’ve posted here before about mathematics’ cultural problem, but it’s really not enough even to say “it’s the culture”, because kids do not belong to a single monolithic “culture”. They are the product of many different cultures. There’s their family culture, which as Shaughnessy suggests either values math or doesn’t. There’s the popular culture, whose devaluing of education in general and mathematics in particular ought to be apparent to anybody not currently frozen in an iceberg. (The efforts of MIT, DimensionU, and others have a steep uphill battle on their hands.)

And of course there’s the school culture, which itself a product of cultures that are out of kids’ direct control. Sadly, the school culture may be the toughest one to change, despite our efforts at reform. As the article says, when mathematics is reduced to endless drill-and-practice, you can’t expect a wide variety of students — particularly some of the most at-risk learners — to really be engaged with it for long. I think Khan Academy is trying to make drill-and-practice engaging with its backchannel of badges and so forth, but you can only apply so much makeup to an inherently tedious task before learners see through it and ask for something more.

I think much of what Seymour Papert wrote about casts a vision for a different kind of culture with regards to school mathematics, much of which centered around the computer as the central tool to make meaning of mathematics. Since making meaning is the basic task of any culture, that would represent a true cultural shift, but sadly most schools (and colleges) tend to turn the computer into something that enables the existing culture, which is clearly not fully functional, rather than something that transforms it. I think one of the most exciting thing about the idea of a universal computer programming requirement for university students is that it gets us closer to Papert’s vision. It certainly seems a step in the right direction if you can do it right.

What are your thoughts on this? Is making math fun the right idea? What’s the best first step toward changing the culture(s) involved here?

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