If We Taught English the Way We Teach Math

Imagine that your only contact with “English” as a subject was through classes in school. Suppose that those classes, from elementary school right through to high school, amounted to nothing more than reading dictionaries, getting drilled in spelling and formal grammatical construction, and memorizing vast vocabulary lists — you never read a novel, nor a poem; never had contact with anything beyond the pedantic complexity of English spelling and formal grammar, and precise definitions for an endless array of words. You would probably hate the subject.You might come to wonder what the point of learning English was.

In response perhaps the teachers and education system might decide that, to help make English relevant to students, they need to introduce more “Applied English”. This means teaching English students with examples from “real life” (for varying degrees of “real”) where English skills are important, like how to read a contract and locate the superfluous comma. Maybe (in an effort by the teachers to be “trendy”) you’ll get lessons on formal diary composition so you can better update your MySpace page. All of that, of course, will be taught using a formulaic cookbook approach based on templates, with no effort to consider underlying principles or the larger picture. Locating the superfluous comma will be a matter of systematically identifying subjects, objects, and verbs and grouping them into clauses until the extra comma has been caught. Your diary will be constructed from a formal template that leaves a few blanks for you to fill in. Perhaps you might also get a few tasks that are just the same old drills, just with a few mentions of “real world” things to make them “Applied”: “Here is an advertisement for carpets. How many adjectives does it contain?”.

In such a world it wouldn’t be hard to imagine lots of people developing “English anxiety”, and most people having a general underlying dislike for the subject. Many people would simply avoid reading books because of the bad associations with English class in school. With so few people taking a real interest in the subject, teachers who were truly passionate about English would become few and far between. The result, naturally, would be teachers who had little real interest in the subject simply following the drilling procedures outlined in the textbooks they were provided; the cycle would repeat again, with students even worse off this time.

And yet this is very much how mathematics tends to be taught in our schools today. There is a great focus on the minutiae of the subject, and almost no effort to help students grasp the bigger picture of why the subject might be interesting, and what it can say about us, and about the world. Mathematics has become hopelessly detail oriented. There is more to mathematics than mindlessly learning formulas and recipes for solving problems. And just like our imaginary example, the response to students lack of interest in mathematics has only served to make the problem worse. The “applications” and examples of using the mathematics in the “real world” are hopelessly contrived at best, and completely artificial at worst, and still keep a laser like focus on formulas and memorizing methods without ever understanding why they work.

Of course the opposite situation, with no focus on details, can be just as bad. Indeed, that is where English instruction finds itself today, with students never learning the spelling, formal grammar, and vocabulary needed to decently express the grand big picture ideas they are encouraged to explore. What is needed is a middle ground. Certainly being fluent in the basic skills of mathematics is necessary, just as having a solid grounding in spelling and grammar is necessary. What is lacking in mathematics instruction is any discussion of what mathematics is, and why mathematics works as well as it does.

The discovery and development of mathematics is one of the great achievements of mankind — it provides the foundation upon which almost of all modern science and technology rests. This is because mathematics, as the art of abstraction, provides us the with ability to make simple statements that have incredibly broad application. For example, the reason that numbers and arithmetic are so unreasonably effective is that they describe a single simple property that every possible collection possesses, and a set of rules that are unchanged regardless of the specific nature of the collections involved. No matter what collection you consider, abstract or concrete, it has a number that describes its size; no matter what type of objects your collections are made up of, the results of arithmetic operations will always describe the resulting collection accurately. Thus the simple statement that 2 + 3 = 5 is a statement that describes the behaviour of every possible collection of 2 objects, and every possible collection of 3 objects. Algebra can be viewed the same way, except that instead of abstracting over collections we are abstracting over numbers: elementary algebra is the combination of objects that represent any possible number (as numbers represent any possible collection with the given quantity), and the set of arithmetic rules for which all numbers behave identically. Numbers let us speak about all possible collections, and algebra lets us speak about all possible numbers. Each layer of abstraction allows us to use an ever broader brush with which to paint our vision of the world.

If you climb up those layers of abstraction you can use that broad brush to paint beautiful pictures — the vast scope of the language that mathematics gives you allows simple statements to draw together and connect the unruly diversity of the world. A good mathematical theorem can be like a succinct poem; but only if the reader has the context to see the rich connections that the theorem lays bare. Without the opportunity to step back and see the forest for the trees, to see the broad landscape that the abstract nature of mathematics allows us to address, it is rare for people to see the elegance of mathematical statements. By failing to address how mathematics works, how it speaks broadly about the world, and what it means, we hobble children’s ability to appreciate mathematics — how can they appreciate something when they never learn what it is? The formulas and manipulations children learn, while a necessary part of mathematics, are ultimately just the mechanics of the subject; equally important is why those mechanics are valuable, not just in terms of what they can do, but in terms of why they can do so much.

So why is it that this broader view is so rarely taught? There are, of course, many reasons, and it is not worth trying to discuss them all here. Instead I will point to one reason, for which clear remedies to exist, and immediate action could be taken. That reason is, simply, that far too many people who teach mathematics are unaware of the this broader view themselves. It is unfortunately the case that it is only at the upper levels of education, such as university, that any broader conception about mathematics becomes apparent. Since it is rare for people going into elementary school teaching to take any university level mathematics, the vast majority of elementary teachers — the math teachers for all our children in their early years — have little real appreciation of mathematics. They teach the specific trees outlined in textbooks, with no real idea of forest. A simple but effective measure that could be taken is to provide stronger incentives and encouragement for prospective elementary school teachers to take extra math; whether it takes the form of courses, or math clubs, doesn’t matter, the aim is to get teachers more involved and better exposed to mathematics in general so that they can become familiar with the richer world beyond the specific formulas and algorithms. This exact approach was tried in Finland as part of their LUMA project starting in 1992. As a result the number of teachers graduating with higher level had increased dramatically by 1999. And the results are also clear: Finland finished first, showing continued improvement in mathematics and science, in the 2003 PISA survey of the reading, math, and science skills of 15-year-olds in OECD countries (Finland finished second, just behind Hong Kong, in the mathematics section). Finland has continued to do extremely well in other more recent (though less major) studies.

Whether you view mathematics as an important subject or not, it is hard to deny that, currently, it is being taught poorly in many countries around the world. With such scope for improvement, and clear examples such as Finland showing the way, isn’t it time that we took at least some of the obvious steps toward improving the quality of mathematics education?

6 Responses to “If We Taught English the Way We Teach Math”

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  2. Math Blog of the Day: The Narrow Road at Deeplinking Says:

    […] Up til now my math-blog reading has been limited to Scott Aaronson’s Shtetl-Optimized (entertaining) and BitTorrent creator Bram Cohen’s LiveJournal (always glad to help). But Leland McInnes’ The Narrow Road is the kind of math blog you can sit down and have a drink with, because the posts are long and you probably aren’t going to fully grasp them anyway though it’s fun to try. McInnes is a mathematician completing his Ph.D. in pro-finite Lie rings. A pro-finite Lie ring, in case you cheated your way through abstract math, “is a compact Hausdorff topological Lie ring such that the open ideals of finite index form a neighbourhood base of 0.” But don’t let that scare you away. McInnes’ manifesto, If We Taught English the Way We Teach Math, is the best thing I’ve read today. You too can blame your elementary school teacher for focusing too much on the details and not instilling in you an appreciation for the beauty and wonder of “the art of abstraction.” Then you can start at the beginning of Mr. McInnes’ blog and catch up. […]

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