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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The math lobby makes Obama bang the drum for more math

I am on my way home from Portland, Oregon where I spoke a meeting of teachers interested in technology. I went to Palo Alto before I went to Portland which meant that when President Obama visited Palo Alto and Portland last week I was there too. This mattered because I was blocked on both ends of my trip by the President's entourage. Those things happen -- no big deal.

But what is a big deal is that the President was going on that trip to speak with people about education. And so was I!

Curiously, we were speaking with different folks. Obama was speaking with Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and the President of Intel. Now, these guys know a lot about business and entrepreneurship and innovation. Education? Not so much. They did go to school. After that, there is no reason to assume they any more about education that anybody else.

Of course, Mr. Obama could use some help with respect to education. He announced yet again the critical need for more math and science, by which he means higher test scores. Why he cares about this I don't know. I guess he thinks maybe we can beat the Chinese in something if we just all study harder in high school and win the math competition. I wonder why he doesn't promote a business competition. I could get my arms around that. Teach kids business -- it might help.

But no, math and science again. He makes it sound like we just don't have enough mathematicians and scientists. There were 10000 applicants to MIT's freshman class last year and they took 1000. So, if anything, we have plenty of kids interested in science but not enough MITs. But the truth is, all the applicants get into some other school that will teach them what they want to know.

And then what will happen? They will become part of the great mass of unemployed, or underemployed, mathematicians and scientists. Really, we have plenty already Mr Obama. Look at the statistics on the number of applicants for each professorial position in these fields.

I don't know what this math and science obsession is really about, but I do have a guess. The testing industry is banging the drum and sending money to push for more testing and as usual, the lobbyists are winning.


Unknown said...

Roger, I'm sure there must be different reasons to be concerned about people learning some mathematics and science in general. By learning science and math we also learn such things as how to obtain, interpret, organize, represent and evaluate information. We also learn to know the difference between a mere hypothesis and a stablished fact, and, as a corollary, that important decisions cannot be made from judicious guesses based on uncertain premisses.

Roger Schank said...

nonsense; all those things can be better taught without mathematics

Unknown said...

I agree, that can be taught without teaching math, but better? If you understand a problem, you idealize it, abstract or generalize from it, etc... you'll be doing math indeed, so why trying to "hide" that that is what you're actually doing? Mathematical techniques have been developed that are there to be used (not to be rediscovered again and again), and people should know that. Also, and not directly related to math, you'll also want your children, to give an example, to know about their bodies and their environment. Don't you think only science can give sensible answers to that kind of matters? Children do not really need to know precisely how those answers were obtained, but they should certainly know that they exist, and that they are somehow important for their lifes and the lifes of their children.

Roger Schank said...

science in school means memorizing formulas and memorizing the names of science; if it did indeed mean reasoning from evidence i would be all for science; Obama is not pushing science or mathematics because he wants people to reason better; reasoning should and can be taught directly without reliance on traditional academic subjects

Unknown said...

Sure. Curiously, if you ask a mathematician for a good book in mathematics what he or she is going to recommend you is that it has lots of interesting exercises. Learing by heart mathematical facts doesn't make anyone smarter, but still the system tends to evaluate "results" and not so much "processes".

This is not to mean that facts are not important. At least something must be known in order to be able to reason correctly about it, and that's another side of education.

I agree with you that both how school evaluates and what it evaluates does not help people to live better lifes.

Michelle said...

Probably a better argument is this: when you emphasize one or two "subjects" over any other, than those become the emphasis in the classrooms. Tested=more important. Ask classroom teachers how much time or importance is given to life skills, cultural studies, geography, arts, music, physical education, health and wellness, personal finance... I could go on and on. There isn't a single topic above that I would give up for the students I teach. They are ALL essential for children to grow and become successful adults.