Technology is doing to math education what industrial agriculture did to food: making it efficient, monotonous, and low-quality.
When Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, Va., recently renovated its classrooms, Vern Williams, who might be the best math teacher in the country, had to fight to keep his blackboard. The school was putting in new “interactive whiteboards” in every room, part of a broader effort to increase the use of technology in education. That might sound like a welcome change. But this effort, part of a nationwide trend, is undermining American education, particularly in mathematics and the sciences. It is beginning to do to our educational system what the transformation to industrial agriculture has done to our food system over the past half century: efficiently produce a deluge of cheap, empty calories.
I went to see Williams because he was famous when I was in middle school 20 years ago, at a different school in the same county. Longfellow’s teams have been state champions for 24 of the last 29 years in MathCounts, a competition for middle schoolers. Williams was the only actual teacher on a 17-member National Mathematics Advisory Panel that reported to President Bush in 2008.
Williams doesn’t just prefer his old chalkboard to the high-tech version. His kids learn from textbooks that are decades old—not because they can’t afford new ones, but because Williams and a handful of his like-minded colleagues know the old ones are better. The school’s parent-teacher association buys them from used bookstores because the county won’t pay for them (despite the plentiful money for technology). His preferred algebra book, he says, is “in-your-face algebra. They give amazing outstanding examples. They teach the lessons.”
The modern textbooks, he says, contain hundreds of extraneous, confusing, and often outright wrong examples, instead of presenting mathematical ideas in a coherent way. The examples bloat the books to thousands of pages and disrupt the logical flow of ideas. (For instance, the standard geometry book for Fairfax County, which is used in schools around the country, tries to explain what a mathematical point is by analogy to pixels on TV screens, which are not in fact point-like.) Teachers at other schools in the county have told him that they would rather use the old books, too, but their principals would kill them. Other teachers have told me the same about new technologies—they, like Williams, think the technologies are ineffectual, but lack his courage to oppose them.
According to an October 2011 report, 89 percent of high school math teachers think their students are ready for college-level mathematics. But only 26 percent of post-secondary teachers think the students are ready once they get there.
This shortfall in mathematical preparation for college-bound students has existed for a long time, but it is being exacerbated by the increased use of technology. College-level math classes almost never use graphing calculators, while high-school classes invariably do. College professors want their students to understand abstract concepts; technology advocates claim their products help teach students such abstractions, but in practice they simply don’t.
Read more: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2012/06/math_learning_software_and_other_technology_are_hurting_education_.single.html
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