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Sunday, December 15, 2013

OECD should stop pushing math in the name of reasoning and do its job

As I write this I am at sea, both literally and figuratively. I was just getting away from it all for a week, but now as the week comes to an end, I see I simply can’t get away from it in any way. By “it” I mean the general absurdity of the nonsense we say and do about education.

Today I read an article about an OECD report:

The article talks about how terrible it is that  Sweden’s PISA scores are slipping and quotes the U.K. education minister blaming the U.K.’s poor performance on the labor party. Do really need international math contests? 
Apparently we do because OECD’s real mission seems to be to standardize teaching around the world. I have been loudly against Common Core’s attempts to do this in the U.S., an idea being pushed by Bill Gates for reasons best known to himself.

The standard canard that one hears in every report about low math scores is that math teaches reasoning and problem solving skills and is critical for surviving in the 21st century. OECD says that their “mathematics test required creativity and problem solving skills based on a deep understanding of mathematical concepts.” Uh huh. “Math teaches creativity and problem solving” has almost become a religious proverb.

I have this odd idea that one should have evidence for statements one makes, especially statements that large organizations make that affect everyone.

Where is the evidence that math teaches problem solving and reasoning? It doesn’t exist.

As an example, I will talk about myself for a minute. I was a math major in college. I liked math and was very good at it.

Now let’s talk about my math ability has helped me solve problems and reason in  my own life. We all do many kinds of reasoning but three areas most of us need to reason about are relationships with people, business/everyday decision making and decisions about our own health.

Let’s start with the last one. I am getting older and health decisions come up again and again. I find that I am not particularly adept at making them. I don’t know enough for one thing. Also doctor’s say contradictory things so I have to figure whom to trust. There are many issues I worry about and nearly as many answers from various sources about them. Maybe I am better at making my medical decisions than others and maybe I am not, but my math ability has absolutely nothing to do with it. If only I were a better mathematician than surely I would be great at making the medical decisions I need to make? Does this sentence make sense to anyone?

Oh, but personal decision making, my math ability has surely helped there right? I can’t think of any area of my life that it has helped less. Love is not an equation. Nor is parenting, Nor do relationships at work go well because you can do algebra.

Business? I suppose it depends on what kind of business you are in.

The voyage I am on as I write this has taken me to some very rich places and some very poor places. In one of poor places, a place I have been to many times, I met with a university president. He is worried about the education he his offering to his students because there really are no jobs for them where he lives. We discussed teaching practical business and entrepreneurial skills. We did not discuss the need for more mathematics.

Later I visited a very wealthy place, a place where people who are rich have second and third homes. The other people there are people who work for low wages to help rich people live easier lives. More mathematics would have helped the poor people there I am sure. They could reason better and then...  Ooops. They would still be stuck living where they live in the economic and cultural situation that exists there. Surely the rich people got there by reasoning so well because they have learned mathematics. 

This sounds so silly it is difficult to write it without laughing. Rich people become (or are born) rich for many reasons. Were they all good at math?

Just as I was asking myself this question, my ship passed by a private island that I recognized because it belongs to a friend of mine and I had been there. Is my friend very good at mathematics? Yes. It turns out he is. Does he make money from being good at mathematics? Yes. It turns out he does. So how is my friend doing in other areas of his life and in other decisions he makes? To my mind -- not so well -- but it is not for me to judge. 

Suffice it to say that mathematics ability does not teach reasoning in general. Why don’t we teach reasoning in general? Everyone agrees that it is very important. Maybe we don’t know how.

But we do know how. The problem is that mathematics is easier to test. Reasoning would be more amorphous, there would be less certainty about right answers, in fact there would be many possible answers. There is also a cultural component. Reasoning about how to fix a social or economic problem would be different in any given place because the answers would depend upon the many factors that make up that place. There are good places and bad places to build a luxury hotel for example. While certainly some simple mathematics would be part of the decision making process about such a business idea, the answer would depend upon many factors most of which would be difficult to assess in a multiple choice test.

OECD has to get smarter. Pay attention to your own name. Teach economic and cultural development. Stop the nonsense about PISA scores and start thinking about what kids in different populations need to learn to do. Reason? Solve problems? Sure. Teach them to solve real problems, ones that exist in the environment in which they live. Forget the math problems.

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