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Lockhart's Lament

2009-06-20 , ,

Slashdot picked up Scott Aaronson’s recent comments on Keith Devlin’s column from last spring on mathematician and teacher Paul Lockhart’s 2002 commentary on the state of mathematics education. I’ve duplicated the pdf locally: Lockhart’s Lament. As one of the kids who didn’t “get” math until after college, I couldn’t help but smile as I read it.

Read it, but for the impatient, below are excerpts of one of the choicest parts:

The Standard School Mathematics Curriculum

LOWER SCHOOL MATH. The indoctrination begins. Students learn that mathematics is not something you do, but something that is done to you.

MIDDLE SCHOOL MATH. Students are taught to view mathematics as a set of procedures, akin to religious rites, which are eternal and set in stone… Contrived and artificial “word problems” will be introduced in order to make the mindless drudgery of arithmetic seem enjoyable by comparison.

ALGEBRA I. So as not to waste valuable time thinking about numbers and their patterns, this course instead focuses on symbols and rules for their manipulation.

GEOMETRY. Isolated from the rest of the curriculum, this course will raise the hopes of students who wish to engage in meaningful mathematical activity, and then dash them.

ALGEBRA II. The subject of this course is the unmotivated and inappropriate use of coordinate geometry… The name of the course is chosen to reinforce the ladder mythology. Why Geometry occurs in between Algebra I and its sequel remains a mystery.

TRIGONOMETRY. Two weeks of content are stretched to semester length by masturbatory definitional runarounds.

PRE-CALCULUS. A senseless bouillabaisse of disconnected topics. Mostly a half-baked attempt to introduce late nineteenth-century analytic methods into settings where they are neither necessary nor helpful.

CALCULUS. This course will explore the mathematics of motion, and the best ways to bury it under a mountain of unnecessary formalism.


Comment [1]

2009-06-21 10:55 , John

I “got” mathematics a little bit when taking an undergraduate “Calculus for Business” course. Min/Max tied into the concept of economic order quantity in an another course I was taking. Otherwise I didn’t ‘get it’ until the real world.

Since we shared the same set of educators through high school, can you point to anyone, with the exception of Gary and Murray, that were truly engaged mathematics teachers?

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