Thursday, March 29, 2007

What is mathematics education?

This was a title of the talk given by Hung Hsi Wu in the Mathematics Department at MSU. He happens to be one of the two mathematicians (I hear there is a third appointed recently) who are on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, but about that in a second. I have gone to the talk not quite sure what to expect. People I know have given me opposing views of this person's work, or rather of what they thought he represented. Wu has tried to give a definition of mathematics education that I haven't heard before. He said: "Mathematics education is mathematical engineering". From what I understand he views engineering as a discipline that customizes abstract notions so that they are usable by wide populations. Therefore mathematics educations should be taking mathematics and turning it into a user-friendly product, i.e. into a product usable by a population under consideration. I thought this was an interesting way to look at it. Otherwise, what I learned is this: this nation is in crisis, W. is the best president as far as the education goes, it is against constitution to have national curriculum (I asked about this), in 2007 mathematical engineering urgently needs close collaborations of mathematicians and educators, there are no mathematical engineers yet. Few of these, I must say, came as a huge surprise to me. But let's not dwell on the politics. After the talk a smaller group retired to a smaller room to talk to the speaker some more. As people would walk in they wold introduce themselves and inevitably would say "I'm from the math department". It felt as if this was a secret handshake, or a a secret club. They were surprised to hear that I was as well. The comment I got was "You were laying so hard that we thought you were from the education side". Needless to say that nobody from education side was there, in this smaller, more intimate setting. Anyhow, I've heard, yet again, what I heard from teachers: It is all somebody else's fault. These future teachers don't know enough math, they don't want to learn, it's high school fault, it's their old teacher's fault... Maybe, just maybe, we aren't doing a good job either! How novel idea. I asked about NMAP, what the goal is, and what he though of the panel's composition. The goal is apparently to make recommendations about algebra. And the panel could be better, but it could be worse. Couple of us agreed that that seemed like a fairly lame answer, and since he thought it was perfectly fine, I decided to ask what he thought in particular of the fact that there is only ONE mathematics teacher on the panel. He agreed that that was a shame. I asked why they didn't ask that that be changed. He said that these things don't work that way. I think my words were:"I thought your job was to make recommendations. Couldn't you have made a recommendation to add a teacher to the Panel?" He said no. But here is the kicker: apparently they've just added three new members: one mathematician, one cognitive psychologist and mathematics education researcher (elementary math), I believe.

Update A friend of mine emailed and was asking "What's up with tallying mathematicians?" Once again, I fail make myself clear (or clear enough in a single post). I have talked about this before: it's not the lack of mathematicians that I find troubling as is the lack of mathematics teachers.


Lsquared said...

Indeed. I'm afraid the whole thing looks pretty doomed with only one person who knows first hand what teaching math to actual high school students is like.

We are all too busy looking important to be useful, I think. With the caveat that I'm sure I do this in some ways too, I find myself frustrated with my fellow math professors who want to make sure that our math secondary ed students have a good grounding in statistics, and statistical tests and stuff, but don't make time for addressing what sorts of data a bar graph is and isn't appropriate for... because that's high school material, and the students should already know it... but they don't... so we send out more teachers to teach high school who don't know high school math thoroughly, because they weren't taught it properly in high school, and we're too busy to fill in the holes in college.


(BTW--statistical graphs are only today's misunderstanding. I see the same problem in lots and lots of courses)

e said...

Funny you should mentione statistics. jd was just talking about this over on hisblog.
I'm curious to know where you think statistics should be in k-12 curriculum.