Sunday, February 23, 2014

Steven Strogatz on Mathematics Education

Patrick Honner: What are your thoughts about the state of math education right now?

Steven Strogatz: My thoughts are mostly based on my own instincts as a teacher and what I’ve seen of teachers I admire. I don’t know much about the constraints that practicing teachers face in high schools right now, so my opinions are fairly uninformed. But I do worry about math communication and teaching in general.

Can I give you my “I have a dream” speech?

PH: By all means!

SS: In my dream world, everyone would have the chance to be a teacher the way Mr. Joffray [Strogatz’s high school calculus teacher and the subject of his book The Calculus of Friendship] was a teacher. His job was to teach us calculus, but he had his own vision of how to teach it and he followed that vision. He was creative, and he put his personal stamp on the course for us. He trusted his judgment, and the school trusted him. He could teach us the way he wanted to teach us, and he was a great teacher.

This is a profession that should be revered. What’s more important than teaching? Why not let teachers teach creatively and inventively? So that’s my dream: a world in which teachers are given the freedom to teach the subject they’re supposed to teach, the way that makes sense to them.

PH: You have two daughters in school right now. Do you think they are being exposed to math in a positive way?

SS: No, I don’t. I worry that my kids are not falling in love with math because it’s being presented as lots of procedures that they need to learn.

It’s too fast. My eighth-grade daughter is taking algebra, and one day she’s doing word problems, like “find three consecutive odd numbers that add up to 123,” and the next day she was doing something I’d never heard of—literal equations.

It just struck me as unbelievable that we’re doing word problems in one night’s homework. Students should spend at least two to three weeks on word problems. They’re hard! Every old-fashioned word problem is being thrown at her in one night.

PH: And then it’s off to literal equations the next day.

SS: I can’t imagine what any kid is doing who doesn’t have a math professor as a parent. The whole thing looks crazy to me. I’m sure even my daughter’s teacher doesn’t want to do it this way. Something is really messed up.

PH: Should math be a mandatory subject for kids?

SS: I’m conflicted about it—I don’t know what to think. There are a lot of students out there who would love math but don’t know that. So they have to be exposed, or maybe even forced, to take math to realize they like it. But after a certain amount of that, it becomes clear to a student that they don’t want to take more math. We as a profession should think about this again.

PH: What math do you think all people should know?

SS: Some amount of number sense is essential—for example, to know what it means when the store says certain items are 20 percent off. If you don’t know what that means, to me, you’re not educated. I feel comfortable saying that every person should understand fractions. But after that, what? Does a person need to know what a polynomial is? That’s not clear to me.

What should a person learn, if anything, after arithmetic? That seems like a pretty interesting pedagogical question, and I don’t believe our current curriculum is the optimal answer. Algebra I and II are good subjects, but so is network theory. It would be nice if people could understand how Google works, for example; it’s not that hard.

There’s a lot of fun in math. Do we really have to teach such dead material? If we could get a cadre of
people who love math and who get it the way you get it or the way I get it—people who know what math is about—you don’t need to tell them how to teach. You just leave them alone, and it’ll be okay.

Patrick Honner is an award-winning math teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School. He writes about math and teaching at and is active on Twitter as @MrHonner.

This article was published in the February 2014 issue of Math Horizons, along with more of Patrick Honner's interview with mathematician and author Steven Strogatz. Yet more of the interview is available online as a supplement.

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