Algebra: Use it or lose it?

Yesterday, there was an interesting article in The Spectrum. The title of the article is “Algebra: Use it or lose it?“, and the claim that is put forth by author Sarah Clark was that algebra teachers all over the world are lying when they tell students that algebra is important because they’ll use it in their daily life.

Clark (32) describes herself as a non-traditional student:

(…) who hasn’t taken an algebra class in 15 years. If, for the past 15 years, I had been using algebra in my everyday life, I would be blowing through my algebra homework with ease, thinking, “Hey! I just did this yesterday while I was washing laundry,” or, “I’m so glad I’ve known this all along. I’d never be able to drive anywhere without it!” or “Wow! I just used this formula last week to calculate the ratio of jazz to classical music on my iPod.

Apparently, this is not what she has experienced. On the contrary, she has never experienced using algebra in her daily life, and she now finds herself uncapable of doing it. She also proposes an algebra revolution, where we should share the truth with every student who is struggling with algebra: these skills will not be crucial for you in adult life.

There are lots of things to comment on these statements, for sure. And lots of people did comment on it already (so be sure to read the comments below the article as well!). Deb Peterson at made an interesting (external) comment to the article, that might be worth reading.

Myself, I think all these claims about how mathematics is/can be useful in your everyday life is a mixed bag. I think Clark’s article illustrates a common issue as well: when teachers claim that mathematics is useful in everyday life, it might be their own everyday life they think of rather than their students’. (Lots of people have written about the connections with everyday life, and if you are interested, you might want to take a look at my own PhD thesis: Mathematics in everyday life: a study of beliefs and actions.)

Math Wrath

Forbes published a nice commentary with a focus on mathematics on Saturday. Here is a taster:

At the tender age of 8, I concluded that, among the varied destinies shimmering before me, being a profound mathematical genius was not one of them. I won’t have a number named after me, like Signor Fibonacci, or propose a problem to perplex the generations, like Monsieur Fermat. Chances are I won’t even get a dinner tip right.

The article is interesting in many ways. Among other things, it includes several thought provoking questions related to mathematics education. For instance: Why do we teach mathematics in the age of the calculator? The article also includes some historical anecdotes that might be of interest to some. In my opinion, it would have been even more interesting to go beyond these anecdotes, but that’s a different story, I guess. (If you want a good resource on the history of mathematics that goes far beyond anecdotes, you should check out MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive!)

Why East Asians do well in math

Yesterday, an interesting article was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The article was entitled “Why East Asians do well in math“. This was the second part of an article that was published last week – with the same name. Of course, this is a news article and not a scientific paper, but I think the articles alltogether provide some interesting information about some issues with these cultures that might very well influence their students’ achievement in mathematics. The final claim is that:

The secret to math success is not genetic or innate talent, but environment, family, culture.

The cost of poor math skills

The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (UK) presents the news of a new report about “The long term cost of numeracy difficulties“. The report concludes that poor skills in mathematics ends up costing the society an enormous amount of money. BBC reports:

Children who are bad at maths at school end up costing the taxpayer up to £2.4bn a year, a report suggests.

Head of distrubution and product at Barclays, Mike Amato said to BBC:

We are very conscious that every child needs basic numeracy skills for survival.

This is also discussed in The Times and other sources. A key message is that spending money on mathematics education will save us a lot of money in the future.

If you have more information on this, links to other sources, similar studies in other countries, etc., feel free to leave a comment!

ATM eNews

ATM Conference 2009ATM eNews is available, and it was published yesterday. Those who subscribe to the newsletter have probably got an email about it already, and those who don’t can read the entire newsletter online. The eNews contains lots of useful information about new publications, conferences, etc. If you don’t know, ATM is the Association of Teachers of Mathematics (in UK), and it has about 4000 members. ATM has an annual conference, which might be worth paying attention to. Online registration is now open.

ICMI newsletter, No 6, 2008

The October version of the ICMI newsletter has been sent to the subscribers’ mailboxes. If you do not subscribe to the newsletter, you can find a complete archive here. Here is a copy of the table of contents:

1. Editorial: About the ICMI Studies — and a Call For Proposals
2. Symposium Celebrating the Centennial of the ICMI
3. Proceedings of the Symposium Celebrating the Centennial of the ICMI
4. ICTMA 14
5. New e-journal: Educational Designer
6. Calendar of Events of Interest to the ICMI Community
7. Subscribing to ICMI News

Is there a crisis in maths education

Brendan Goldsmith, Professor at Dublin Institute of Technology has written an interesting article about the crisis in maths education in Ireland. This article was published under the “Opinion” section of Trinity The introduction deals with what a Dublin paper referred to as a crisis, where more than 20 percent of the students had failed mathematics when the “Leaving Certificate” results were published. A quick review of Professor Goldsmith revealed that the crisis was more severe on the newspaper’s side:

A quick read revealed that it wasn’t. The correct failure rate was 10.2 percent, but the error made by the journalist, and presumably approved by the editor, was perhaps more revealing about the true position of mathematics nationally. They reasoned that since 4.5 percent of students had failed the higher level paper, 5.7 percent had failed the foundation level and 12.3 percent had failed the ordinary level paper, it must follow that 4.5 + 5.7 + 12.3 = 22.5 percent of students had failed mathematics. The enormity of such an error and its ability to reach the front page illustrates clearly that many of us are functionally innumerate.

The article further gives a nice insight into the situation for mathematics education in Ireland, and although it is more of a news article than a scientific paper, it might be worth reading.

Essential skills for a math teacher

Education Week has an interesting article about the uncertainties about the skills that are needed to be a successful mathematics teacher. The point of departure for the article is the recent report by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel in the U.S. The report has several suggestions about the curriculum, cognition, instruction, etc. When it comes to the skills that are needed to become a good mathematics teacher, though, the answers were fewer:

Research does not show conclusively which professional credentials demonstrate whether math teachers are effective in the classroom, the report found. It does not show what college math content and coursework are most essential for teachers. Nor does it show what kinds of preservice, professional-development, or alternative education programs best prepare them to teach.

One of the panel members, Deborah Loewenberg Ball, was interviewed in the article, and she believed that it was in the area of improving teaching that the emphasis should be set in the years to come:

“We should put a lot of careful effort over the next decade into this issue so that we can be in a much different place 10 years from now.”

There appears to be a lot of work and research to do within this area. There is much agreement that the teacher is important, and the quality of the math teacher has an impact on the students’ results.

But the 90-page report also says it is hard to determine what credentials and training have the strongest effect on preparing math teachers to teach, and teach well. Research has not provided “consistent or convincing” evidence, for instance, that students of certified math teachers benefit more than those whose teachers do not have that licensure, it found.

So, the question that Ball and her team has focused a lot on in their research still remains important for researchers in the future: What kind of knowledge is it that teachers need?