(Cross-posted at Out In Left Field)
Consider the following math professors: Keith Devlin (Stanford), who wants grade schools to de-emphasize calculation skills; Dennis DeTurck (Penn), who wants grades schools to stop teaching fractions; and Jordan Ellenberg (University of Wisconsin) and Andrew Hodges (Oxford), who criticize grade school math as overly rote and abstract. And consider all the math professors featured in these three recent Youtube videos (an extended infomercial for the so-called "Moore Method," yet another re-branding of guide-on-the-side teaching and student-centered discovery learning--thanks to Barry Garelick for pointing me to these!).
Every last one of these math professors sounds like yet another apologist for Constructivist Reform Math. Each one of them can be--and in some cases is--readily cited by Reform Math acolytes and by the Reform Math-crazed media as such. And, yet, had these professors actually been subjected to Reform Math when they were students, it's hard to imagine that any of them would have enjoyed the subject enough to pursue it beyond grade school.
Indeed, unless the mathematician in question has actually sat down and looked at the Reform Math curricula in detail, and imagined him or herself subjected to it, year after year, in all its slow-moving, mixed-ability-groupwork, explain-your-answer-to-easy problems glory, we should not trust what he or she has to say about it. Indeed mathematicians in general, unless (like Howe and Klein and Ma and Milgram and Wu) they take the time to examine what's going on with actual k12 math students in actual k12 classrooms, are especially unreliable judges of current trends in k12 math. Here's why:
1. Grownup mathematicians remember arithmetic as boring and excessively rote, and tend therefore to downplay the importance of arithmetic in general, and arithmetic calculations in particular, in most students' mathematical development.
2. Unable to put themselves in the shoes of those students to whom math doesn't come as naturally as it does to them, they tend also to downplay the importance of explicit teaching and rote practice. Some mathematicians take this a step further, imagining that if one simply gave grade schoolers more time to "play around" with numbers, they'd make great mathematical leaps on their own.
3. As more and more college students show worsening conceptual skills in math, mathematicians tend to fault k12 schools for failing to teach concepts and "higher-level thinking," not for failing to teach the more basic skills that underpin these things.
4. In upper-level college and graduate math classes, attended disproportionately by those who are approaching expert-level math skills, student-centered learning is much more effective than it is in grade school classrooms, where students are mathematical novices. Not enough mathematicians read Dan Willingham and appreciate the different needs of novices and experts.
Now there are two specific ways in which mathematicians can provide valuable insights for k12 math instruction:
1. They are perhaps the best source on what students need to know in order to handle freshman math classes.
2. To the extent that they remember what it was like to be a math buff in grade school, and to the extent that they take a detailed look at what's going on right now in k12 math classrooms, they can offer insights into how well suited today's curricula and today's classrooms are to the needs and interests of today's budding mathematicians.
But the fact that mathematicians are really, really good at math does not, in itself, make them reliable sources on what works in k12 math classes. Quite the contrary.