Thursday, February 01, 2007

 

Staring at a blank screen


After all this time, have I run out of things to write about? Things to whine about? Stories to tell?

I'm coming off a long project which started out to be interesting enough, but in the end I was just slogging away until it was done. The money will be good, so it's been worth it. But, somehow, I feel intellectually drained. Not that the work was that challenging, but it's as if I only had so much room in my head, and it was all used up by the project. It must be that, or senility.

Z has had a bit of difficulty with Algebra lately, so I spent some time last weekend working with him on it. I thought I'd start by skimming through the chapter in his text book. Not a good idea. For many, many pages, I just couldn't figure out what it was trying to teach. The text started out with a lame little story about "Juan" helping his mother sell potatoes from their garden in the market on Saturdays... ? Huh? What does this have to do with equations of lines? Why does he need to learn about the cultural differences north and south of the border and the unequal standards of living, etc. IN HIGH-SCHOOL ALGEBRA? There were pictures! Of Juan and his mother. Lots of them. Doesn't the mass media shove enough of these stories down our throats in the nightly newsertainment programs?

After raging about this for 15 minutes or so, I vowed to look beyond the illogically placed sociology and try to identify the specific terminology and definitions that were relevant to linear equations. After reading through pages and pages of vaguely worded half-cocked questions (why, do you suppose....?) with no answers, I finally stumbled across a few paragraphs buried in the middle of one page, (finally!) with some clear definitions. I was tempted to pull out a marker and circle that section - so far it was the only real math I'd seen. Then the text again wandered off into Oz with more bizarre examples. Finally, I realized that the stream of consciousness had morphed into a new variation on linear equations, but it took a long time before I could figure out what the heck they were trying to show... once again, eventually there were a few paragraphs of real math again and finally some examples.

If I were a 14 year-old student taking this for the first time I'd have crawled out of my skull and died from sheer boredom long before that first page of definitions. How the heck can you go back and study this kind of garbage in preparation for an exam?

I took Advanced Algebra when I was in the ninth grade (1964/1965). My class was the first guinea pig(s) in our city's school system for a new concept in math (we called it "new math") called the SMSG (School Mathematics Study Group). It was so experimental that the textbooks were published in yellow paperback. (I still have all of these for some reason.) Not a single picture in the whole book. Nor any stories. Nor any annoying (unanswered) leading questions. Just pure math. Still I remember my Dad complaining about it. He even suggested I transfer to the regular algebra class. But I actually liked math - it was one of my best subjects all the way through my second year of calculus in college. Here's what Wikipedia says about the SMSG project:
The School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG) was an academic think tank focused on the subject of reform in mathematics education. Directed by Edward G. Begle and financed by the National Science Foundation, the group was created in the wake of the Sputnik crisis in 1958 and tasked with creating and implementing mathematics curricula for primary and secondary education, which it did until its termination in 1977. The efforts of the SMSG yielded a reform in mathematics education known as new math which was promulgated in a series of reports, which culminated in a series published by Random House called the New Mathematical Library. In the early years SMSG also rushed out a set of draft textbooks in typewritten paperback format for elementary and middle school students.
Here's the first part of the SMSG Algebra course description from JSTOR: MATHEMATICAL EDUCATION NOTES Edited by John A. Brown, University of Delaware.The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Mar., 1961), pp. 283-285:
Grade 9. The SMSG ninth grade course, First Course in Algebra, differs from conventional texts in the following ways. It is based upon structure properties of the real number system. This development of algebra is interesting, meaningful, and mathematically sound. It helps bring out the nature of mathematics and strengthens the student's algebraic techniques by relating them to basic ideas. Definitions and properties...
Well, I guess I can see why my Dad wasn't too enthusiastic about SMSG after all. As it happens, by 1975, the SMSG approach to mathematics instruction was pretty much abandoned as an abject failure. While the mathematics was sound, the terminology they used and the abysmally poor writing doomed it from the beginning. What victim of SMSG doesn't remember "set theory" (chapter 1, page 1 in every book). [Maybe I was lucky, or had really good teachers, but I thrived on newmath. And, I did become adept at reading and interpreting "Newspeak".]

So, for all my ranting and raving about Z's textbook I guess I really don't have that much room to complain. Anyway, after a while, I finally got through that chapter without my blood boiling too much more and was able to then sit down with Z and sort out what his issues were and help him work his way through them.

Still, what has happened to text book writing today? Why do authors feel compelled to shove social inequity into a mathematics text book? Why would any reputable publisher present it to our school systems with a straight face? For that matter, why would any school system (they've got to be using committees) seriously consider buying this kind of math textbook? Will we have to wait for three or four years when our school board faces a crisis of drastically lowered math achievement test scores before they'll do something? And, will they blame the teachers, or look at the textbooks first?

I sure wish I had started homeschooling Z back when I first retired and he was starting the sixth grade.

Comments:
Oh my gosh, G. I thought I was the only one who ever did SMSG math! It was in my senior year of High School (all girls Catholic)back in 1964.

I can't wait til my daughter gets home this afternoon so she can read your post. She teaches Middle School math.
 
I've been doing Saxon math, and have been homeschooled since 4th grade (am now a senior in high school). I'm just about finished with Saxon calculus and Saxon physics, and have been extremely pleased. It's real math, well-taught, no pictures.
 
You might enjoy this article. I thought it was hilarious, though I disagree with the blogger about other things. I'm with him on this one, though. Forcing social equity into every textbook is both condescending and confusing. I'm all for social justice, but where's the social justice if the math problem is obscured beyond recognition?
 
Juan and the potatoes... too funny.
 
It's not so much the social justice issues (that just feels so inappropriate in this context), what bothers me the most is how difficult it is to FIND THE MATH buried beneath all the verbiage and pictures and fancy layouts.

I realize the books are trying to be hip and "lead the student to the desired conclusions, through questions and examples", but why can't they at least put a summary of the desired mathematics at the end of each chapter - so you could at least find all the relevant information?

The book in question has a few, vague summary sections, but it's as if the author is too jealous of his clever design and layout to allow a true summary of the math he's supposedly trying to present.

J, I'm going to check out the Saxon series... Thanks.
 
That's why the teachers here never use text books. Yes, we buy text bks but never used them. The teachers just compile materials of their own based on the text bks.
 
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