By Rebecca Schonberg
I was probably about six or seven when Mattel came out with a talking Barbie. You could pull the pink string on the back of her perfect plastic body and listen to her spit out pre-recorded phrases in her perfect pretty voice. "Let's go shopping", she would giggle. Or "Brush my hair." Or "I hate math". I remember that last phrase because of the outrage it provoked in my mother, a computer scientist and mathematician.
So why mention the fact that the folks at Mattel seemed determined to share their fear of math with children? Because ten years down the road it seems that the same breed of math-phobic innovators who brought us our subversive childhood toys are now apprently designing the public school math curriculum.
It started in California, where many of these New Age ideas sprung up, about seven years ago. A group of teachers and educators, who had had a hard time with math when they were in school decided that it was because math was taught in a way that alienated children and therefore limited their success in the subject. They thought that a looser approach, something centered around language and critical thinking skills, as well as letting students discover mathematical principles for themselves would be more kid-friendly.
Are the warning lights going off yet? They banished textbooks and ushered in beans and coins for counting, bendy straws for measuring angles, and stips of paper for adding fractions. They decided against teaching the algorithms used for adding,subtracting, multiplying, and doing long division. They switched the emphasis of problem-solving from accuracy to estimation.
And now they have arrived in New York. This is where the subject gets personal and I expect those still reading to start getting angry. You remember elementary school math. Pretty boring, right? Of course it was! We spent months just memorizing thngs, like multiplication tables. But every student sitting in a calculus class today,or in a physics class, or buying a MetroCard, or figuring out how much theyearned at an after-school job this month, is relying on basic arithmetic skills required in elementary school.
That is why I was so angry to find out that District 2 (including PS6 where I went to elementary school) recently adopted this new math curriculum. I shudder now to picture the school: my old classroom transformed into warm and fuzzy discussion groups about "favorite numbers" and children drawing little pictures of apples in order to do simple addition problems.
Math has a unique function among subjects: it provides everyone with tools--which are only really a few simple formulas--that can be used to describe the outside world in terms that are immutably true.
It may be threatening because it is abstract and quantitative, and because it does not care about how your day was and can't be improvised and is not open to interpretation. Yet somehow I thing that protecting young students from the challenge that math provides or disguising it in cute words and pictures is more of an insulting way to hold kids back than anything else.
The author attends the 11th grade at Hunter High School.
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