It was 1986, folks (or perhaps 1929), for those keeping score at home. Twenty-three (or eighty) years later and the same arguments are going on, the same mistakes are being made, as if nothing at all has been said like what Louis P. Benezet or Hassler Whitney offered. As if Constance Kamii's work has never been done or published.
My thanks to G. S. Chandy for pointing me to this article. It was published while I was in the process of taking undergraduate mathematics courses in NYC and slowly gravitating towards changing fields from literature to mathematics education. I'd never heard of NCTM or any of the other organizations involved in mathematics teaching and research, the Math Wars hadn't officially started yet, and had I read this piece at the time, I would have naively wondered how anyone could be on the other side from people like Benezet and Whitney. Having suffered through a K-12 mathematics education that was about as inspiring as a dead fish in the gutter, it is remarkable to me even today that I took it upon myself in my thirties to go back to school just to prove to myself that I could indeed learn more mathematics, from calculus to where I was led. Didn't plan to go into the field, and it was fortune, more than anything, the attention of one of my instructors, that led me to start teaching remedial mathematics and, eventually, to do graduate work in math education at the University of Michigan in the 1990s.
Yes, there has been some progress since then, but the entrenchment of traditionalists is fiercer than ever. The lies, distortions, selective quotations, meaningless and carefully culled data, shifting criteria for what "counts" when it comes to evaluating programs, teachers, schools, kids, materials, etc., and many other shady tactics continue unabated, fueled by a hatred for innovation and purveyed by politically-motivated, educationally conservative and reactionary pundits, think-tanks, and foundations, all fiercely determined to see to it that mathematics teaching and learning in this country remain in the hands of a smug, patronizing elite. As long as they are successful in reducing us to a standardized-test crazy culture, as Whitney so accurately describes below, the country as a whole and millions of children will suffer unnecessary torment and boredom when it comes to mathematics. And a populace that is mathematically ignorant is a populace that is far easier to lead by the nose.
Are Benezet's and Whitney's ideas really just those of a couple of isolated cranks, as the anti-progressives from groups like Mathematically Correct would have us believe? Consider for a moment the following anecdote about the great mathematician, Augustin Louis Cauchy:
A mathematical friend of Cauchy's father, Lagrange, recognized the young boy's precocious talent and commented to a contemporary, 'You see that little young man? Well! He will supplant all of us in so far as we are mathematicians.' But he had interesting advice for Cauchy's father. 'Do not let him touch a mathematical book till he is seventeen.' Instead, he suggested stimulating the boy's literary skills so that when eventually he returned to mathematics he would be able to write with his own mathematical voice and not one he had picked up from the books of the day.
It proved to be sound advice. Cauchy developed a new voice that was irrepressible once the floodgates protecting Cauchy from the outside world had been reopened." (Marcus du Sautoy's THE MUSIC OF THE PRIMES pp. 65-66)
No, the analogy to Benezet's experiment is not perfect by any means. But it does suggest that there has long been an awareness that some aspects of formal instruction as they become institutionalized can be stifling to creativity and originality.
Does this mean I am advocating for the destruction of public (or any) formal education and schooling? Not quite. What I am advocating for is a coming to sanity on the part of educators in this country when it comes to mathematics teaching (if nothing else). We are destroying our children, en masse, with the most stultifying approaches imaginable to learning and doing real mathematics, substituting instead a phony "school mathematics" that serves no one truly well, and from which only a small minority emerges able to actually do mathematics, in spite of, rather than because of, the way the subject is taught in most instances.
Few American K-12 teachers have the smallest idea what mathematics is, what it means to do mathematics, or what it means to be a professional mathematician. And what these teachers wind up doing, consciously or not, is to guarantee that very few students will ever find out.
Every time I bump into a piece like the one about Whitney and Benezet below, I am both amazed and sickened: amazed that I hadn't seen this before (though I've been aware of Benezet for over a decade now); sickened that the same lies rise like a foul smokescreen every time Benezet's name or any idea that sounds even vaguely like his, is presented. How much longer do our children have to be tormented by meaningless mathematics education? When will it be time for real mathematics to be taught and learned, in a manner suitable to how children are? If not now, when? If not us, who?
By FRED M. HECHINGERPublished: June 10, 1986
SCHOOL reformers, business executives and politicians are demanding more mathematics for American children. Schools are responding, at least in terms of the hours given to math. Not all mathematicians are cheering. They worry that pressures for more hours of mathematics may hurt rather than help, unless mathematics is taught differently.
Dr. Hassler Whitney, a distinguished mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, says that for several decades mathematics teaching has largely failed. He predicts that the current round of tougher standards and longer hours threatens to ''throw great numbers, already with great math anxiety, into severe crisis.''
Dr. Whitney has spent many years in classrooms, both teaching mathematics and observing how it is taught, and he calls for an end to what he considers wrongheaded ways.
Long before school, he says, very young children ''learn in manifold ways, at a rate that will never be equaled in later life, and with no formal teaching.'' For example, they learn to speak and communicate, and to deal with their environment. Yet the same children find much simpler things far more difficult as soon as they are formally taught in school.
Learning mathematics, Dr. Whitney says, should mean ''finding one's way through problems of new sorts, and taking responsiblity for the results.''
''This has been completely forgotten'' in most schools, he finds. ''The pressure is now to pass standardized tests. This means simply to remember the rules for a certain number of standard exercises at the moment of the test and thus 'show achievement.' This is the lowest form of learning, of no use in the outside world.''
Dr. Whitney, in a recent report in The Journal of Mathematical Behaviour, recalled an experiment begun in 1929 by L. P. Benezet, then superintendent of schools in Manchester, N.H. Mr. Benezet was distressed over eighth graders' poor command of English and their inability to communicate ideas.
''In the fall of 1929,'' he wrote in 1935, ''I made up my mind to try an experiment of abandoning all formal instruction in arithmetic below the seventh grade and concentrate instead on teaching the children to read, to reason and to recite'' by reporting on books they had read and on incidents they had seen. The children were no longer made to struggle with long-division. ''For some years,'' Mr. Benezet went on, ''I had noticed that the effect of the early introduction of arithmetic had been to dull and almost chloroform the child's reasoning faculties.''
Over the years numbers crept into the children's experience, Mr. Benezet said. They learned to deal with ''halves'' and ''doubles,'' with estimates of size, with a natural development of multiplication tables and slowly, with formal arithmetic.
Mr. Benezet concluded that children who had not been dragged into early but only dimly understood mathematics eventually outdistanced those who had. Literacy in English and a capacity to think independently and to speak and write clearly helped many to do well in mathematics, too.
Dr. Whitney points to that experiment as he looks at today's mathematics teaching. He cites the responses to a problem on a recent test given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress: John and Lewis are planning a rectangular garden 10 feet long and 6 feet wide, and they want to put a fence around it. Ignoring such real matters as the need for a gate, the question was simply how many feet of fencing was needed.
Of the 9-year-olds who took the test, 9 percent chose 32 feet; 59 percent, 16 feet; 14 percent, 60 feet, and the remaining 18 percent gave other answers. Of the 13-year-olds taking the test, 31 percent said 32 feet; 38 percent, 16 feet; and 21 per cent, 60 feet, with 10 percent giving other answers that apparently did not use any arithmetical formulas.
''Why did not all the children get the correct answer?'' Dr. Whitney asks. ''If they were involved in it as a real problem they could have drawn a picture or made it real in some way, and looked to find the answer.'' Instead, he said, they did it ''the school way,'' guessing at what kind of ''operation'' to use - multiplying or adding the numbers.
Numbers, Dr. Whitney says, become a tool when you use them for a purpose. In a class of 6-year-olds, he recalls, the teacher explained how to find the sum of 3 plus 5 by drawing ducks on the board, not noticing a boy in the back of the room saying to another, ''Yesterday I gave you 10 cards; now you gave me 7, so you still owe me 3.''
In the traditional school climate, Dr. Whitney writes, children's natural thinking ''becomes gradually replaced by attempts at rote learning, with disaster as a result.'' In high school, students increasingly say, ''Just tell me which formula to use,'' a way of saying, ''Don't ask me to think.''
Because teachers must ''cover the material,'' Dr. Whitney adds, there is less time to think. When students are called on, they must answer instantly. Wrong answers are not discussed.
''Students and teachers are all victims'' as national commissions clamor for more mathematics without realizing, Dr. Whitney warns, that they may create less knowledge and more anxiety. He says it is crucial to stop just learning the rules.
Dr. Whitney's views are controversial, as were Mr. Benezet's in 1935. Some mathematics teachers and other experts may denounce them as soft on mathematics, but others may welcome relief from demands that turn youngsters off mathematics. Of course, some teachers, ignoring the demands of the moment, actually do teach in the Benezet-Whitney fashion.
However controversial his views, Dr. Whitney deserves a hearing. Present attitudes, he writes, ''lead to the lowest of goals, passing standardized tests,'' instead of encouraging the kind of thinking ''essential for true progress in science, techology and elsewhere.''
The mathematics teaching Dr. Whitney talks about makes children want to know the answers in situations that are real to them. It makes mathematics come alive for them as they do their own thinking and take control over their work, not for tests but for themselves.