Changing the Way To Teach Math
by Irvin M. Miller, Ph.d

Every few decades people come to realize that math is not being taught effectively in our schools. Currently, many feel that we are now in a very genuine crisis.  Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of R.P.I., describes it as a quiet crisis in which we are not producing enough engineers to meet the needs of industry.  Bill Gates goes a step further in stating that the engineers we are producing are not qualified for the demands of industry. 

There is an even more telling tale with everyday consumer actions.  Decades ago the concern was that if you were given successive discounts of 30 and 70 per cent, few people could determine the final cost of an item initially priced at $100.  Today the concern is that if you owe $30 on your credit card bill and make no payments, with a monthly interest charge of 20 per cent and a late fee of $45 per month, few can determine your bill for the third month. (The second month your bill would be $81 and in the third month it would be $142.20, giving an effective 374 per cent interest rate.)  Though the $45 late fee is not called interest, it is far more devastating than the interest.  Personal credit card debt in this country averages over $8,000, in large part because people cannot understand the wording of their credit agreements or the consequences of the math.  Furthermore, Congress has effectively worked with the credit card industry to craft laws allowing the industry to charge fees and rates that would otherwise violate the usury laws.

Trying to improve math education has failed and will continue to fail until educators realize that math has been taught incorrectly for at least the past half century.  The teaching of math is an incestuous process whereby the people who have themselves not been taught properly teach students who will then become the teachers of another generation of students who will continue to pass on bad information, as well as bad attitudes.  The process is further weakened by an education system that wants full control of its methods and persists in "teaching to the test."  Allowing creativity on the part of students would increase the difficulty of controlling and predicting the results of the tests.  Mathematics is not as subjective a science as many assume.  There may be several ways to work out the solution to a problem, and some problems have more than one correct answer.  Automated testing is restrictive in dealing with creativity.   The teaching of mathematics can also be hampered by the technology: numeric and graphic calculators are boons to teachers with students having difficulty performing computations or understanding concepts, but those who depend upon these devices will never get a feel for number structure.

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