Sunday, May 11, 2008

Catch up

The semester is over, and I enjoyed my last week immensely. I wish I could take more time off (although there was some work involved I mostly played), but no such luck.

My 1010 class is over. I take it the people in charge believe I did a good job because I get another one in the fall: 180 enrollment cap. I myself doubt this is even possible.


There was a week long intermission here. I went to Berkeley for a conference on teaching algebra. I had fairly interesting couple of days, although in many respects utterly unenlightening, especially from a point of view of someone who just taught a whole bunch of kids who failed to learn "enough" of it in high school. The reason I put enough under quotations is that I am not sure what this enough means. I am also not convinced that the departments that decide on qa requirements have the right idea of what their students need, bu more about this below. The reason I say unenlightening is that from what I can tell there are many good curricula and people (at least the ones I heard talk) all seem to, more or less, agree that algebra can be taught in a way that students learn and they have a pretty good idea of what that might be. It is then rather mysterious as to why the students have not learned more, and we haven't heard much on that topic. It was little unclear what the conversation was really about, as throughout the conference I couldn't shake off this feeling that people were talking about different things although they were using the same words, and several people in fact noted the same. Even that said, there weren't many disagreements and everyone was rather friendly and respectful. Except for Wu, I believe I might have mentioned him once before someplace in this blog, who started his talk by saying that the way we teach algebra is all wrong, and that it is basically "garbage in, garbage out", and proceeded to inform us that all the problems start with the way fractions are taught and that is the root of all of our problems. While I don't necessarily disagree with his proposed definition of fractions, I do have a problem with giving such judgmental statements without offering any proof that what he is proposing is better (or even different) from what is currently being done. I actually asked him for the proof, or in the absence of one, he could just give me some evidence that would support his claim. His answer was "Well, there is no alternative. What else would you do?" I would have expected something better from a mathematician. People tried to point out that his definition (a point on a number line) has been in the textbooks for at least last 10 years and what he is saying isn't all that revolutionary, but all those comments fell on deaf ears. I was rather upset by the lack of conversation and abundance of monologues on his part.

The highlight of this conference for me were couple of hours my friend Brynja and I spent talking to Bob Moses. This was the second time I heard him speak, but only first that I had an opportunity to talk to him. I had a chapter of his book still unread, and I finished it on my way home, and I could hear him read it to me in his soothing, calm, respectful, and powerful voice. I was so impressed with his demeanor especially because my reactions to the world and its injustices are so different. I suppose I still have some growing up to do.

The premise of Algebra Project is that algebra course in middle or high school is a gatekeeper course. A student who has not been successful in algebra courses in their secondary schooling will have to take remedial courses in college (and the ones I have seen are NOT organized in a way that supports those students) and thus their cahnces of succeeding in studies that would lead to higher paying professions and economic mainstream would be severely diminished. While I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment, I have come to believe that the role algebra plays in lives of many college students is very different from the role algebra plays in lives of high school students. Majority of students who who take remedial courses in college, and by remedial I mean college algebra (what makes it "college", btw?) and below fall into two categories. First are students who aspire to be majors in fields that require courses above college algebra and they either need a refresher course or are on their way to fulfill the requirements for those courses and these students are at least somewhat motivated to learn if not smitten by mathematics. The second category are students who are seniors, and have waited until their last year in college to fulfill the quantitative requirement for their major. Most of the time these students are mortally afraid of mathematics, convinced they are no good at it (how do I explain to them that it's not about being good/bad at it?) and are unwilling to try because they have sentenced themselves to failure (not that the system is designed in such a way that their prejudices will be dispelled after taking these courses). This second category is the one I wonder about. First question I have is why are these departments determined that manipulating radicals is an important thing for their students to know? I am the first one to say that students should take mathematics, but I don't see algebra as an answer to all our troubles. These students are clearly in professions that they wanted to be in, and by not teaching them algebra we are not depriving them of a successful future. Why can't we teach them something that they may enjoy more, that may relate to them more, and that, hold your breath, might even change their attitude towards mathematics so that they wouldn't go home and tell their kids how they "hated it", "weren't ever good at it" or "never needed it"? We have a course Quantitative reasoning that is supposed to be that, but 1010 is a prerequisite for it which sort of beats the purpose, and further it is really full of boring problems, and calculations of the monthly payments on your house (I used a computer to calculate those, too), and I can't even remember, I suppressed it from my memory, it was so boring, and I was teaching it. Ok, you have a point, maybe I taught it badly, and that is most definitely the case as that was 8 years ago and I knew nothing, although to be perfectly honest I'm not sure I know a whole lot more right now. The second question is then how do we go about changing the requirements and course curricula? This is becoming a novel :) so I'll stop. I need to remember to talk about

Left to right



jd2718 said...

There should be two, quite different, courses. I see the exact same thing here.


H. said...

What was the part about left to right? I've just been thinking about learning disabilities involving left-right inversions, because one of my most hard-working students is doing such strange, strange, things to her graphs.

On another note, next time you go to the Bay Area, maybe we could meet? :)

Jackie said...

Another reminder to talk about "left to right"!

e said...

Ladies, I'm afraid I'm about to disappoint, but I will write.

H., the Bay Area is probably the cheapest and closest place for us to travel to, and we have lots of friends there. I'm sure we'll be there pretty soon again, and I'd love to meet.

H. said...

Also, it bothers me that there are all these cool math ed research things going on within walking distance from places I go weekly - and I don't even know about them until I read about them on your blog.

e said...

I can certainly understand that. How about I let you know next time before it's actually too late to go?

Here is something that will be fun, although not math ed:


Anonymous said...

wow. wu being authoritarian.
a casualty of the math wars,
no doubt: too much politics
has evidently impaired his faith
that reasoning can be persuasive.

now, i haven't looked into it *deeply*
but it always looked to me like
this moses guy wanted to respond
to the inappropriate role of algebra
as a "gatekeeper" by *keeping*
the gatekeeping but eliminating
the algebra. and, this is the part
i like the least, going right on
*calling* it "algebra".

there was a great deal of fuss
by the national math panel
about what should be called algebra
(and wu was part of it): i'm gonna try
to put a charitable spin on his
"well what else?"---very likely
he means something along the lines
of "we have to *begin* by agreeing
not to *lie* about what we're doing".