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EssayTagger is a web-based tool to help teachers grade essays faster.
But it is not an auto-grader.

This blog will cover EssayTagger's latest feature updates as well as musings on
education, policy, innovation, and preserving teachers' sanity.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Discussing: "The Death of Math" by Gary Rubenstein

Rubenstein bemoans testing culture's effect on Math education and suggests a better way forward. I feel his pain but think he's only half-right.

Gary Rubenstein in his "The Death of math" blog post is spot-on about the short-sighted nature of de-prioritizing away from vital skills like geometric proofs as a result of standardized testing pressures. Proofs are geometry and are by far the most valuable aspect of it. And it ain't about the math, it's about the way of thinking that geometry proofs cultivate (yes, I'm an English teacher that has come to love "ain't"--deal with it!).

But Rubenstein is a bit behind the times in the Khan Academy era. Sal Khan, my former boss and co-worker (a fact that I will brag about until the end of eternity), has worked out a better solution to a lot of the issues that Rubenstein tries to solve.

Rubenstein's suggestion to trim the curriculum is a way to encourage depth instead of super-shallow breadth. But what makes more sense is Sal's mastery approach; master a foundational skill and then move on to the next set of skills that build upon it. Move at your own pace. Don't skip key foundational skills that will leave you ill-prepared for skills down the road.

Simply curtailing the curriculum would be an improvement to our current shotgun/spray-and-pray curriculum but it's also a lowest common denominator approach; a blunt club to Sal's electron microscope scalpel. The future is individualized, custom-tailored instruction and curriculum for every student at every ability level, not a broader net that can catch more students less precisely.

And I'm not onboard with Rubenstein's suggestion of making Math an elective beyond 8th grade. Look, I hate how much hand-holding and coddling we do in school, but 14-year-olds do still need firm guidance in many, many areas. Given the choice, plenty of super-stinky hormonal teenage boys wouldn't shower every day. Or ever wash their sweaty PE shirt. Parts of high schools should be cordoned off as biohazard zones. Seriously.

I suspect that Rubenstein's laissez-faire attitude on this comes more from his own distaste for teaching kids who don't want to be there. Math is awesome to him and if you don't get that love or don't want to be there, so be it. That's how I felt about my senior Humanities course that kids had no choice about taking; Herodotus ain't for everyone. Fair enough. They shouldn't have to be subjected to it.

But Math isn't a take-it-or-leave-it proposition; you really can't get too far in life if you aren't at least modestly proficient in Math.

The better change would be to make Math more project-oriented so there's always a "why" motivating each skill. What's the practical purpose of factoring polynomials? Anyone? I aced Math through BC Calc but I didn't have any freakin' clue why polynomials mattered. Give kids a reason, a practical application for the math and it won't seem like such arbitrary, pointless torture.

Maybe it makes more sense to front-load Physics as a way to provide the raison d'ĂȘtre for Math. The sheer beauty of tossing an object and plotting out its parabolic arc suddenly makes all that algebra clear and relevant. Wakeboarding and iTunes downloads are all based on trig wave functions. 3D graphics are all predicated on linear algebra matrix manipulations.

Learning is never effective when it's in a vacuum, segregated from the "why" that gives the thing its value and purpose.