Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Pi Day! Einstein's birthday! Joy and gratitude for math

...and let's not forget gratitude for math teachers.

And for the anonymous cartoonist whose backward-thinking graphic went viral this year. Thank you interwebs and tubes and collective shared learning. Thank you for geeky math humor. Oh beautiful world that makes sense, thank you for Pi.

OK, let's stop eating our 3.14 pieces of strawberry rhubarb (to infinity!) and talk about America. We're slipping. Evidence is everywhere that we are not competing on the international stage and that many students that struggle with math courses in middle school later drop out. What's happening when in China and India high school students traditionally take calculus and in the US, that course is reserved for 13% of our high school population? Math education is so poor right now that here at University of Washington Tacoma, more that 50% of our entering students don't even test successfully into college-level math courses. They are sent away, to community college, with fingers crossed they do the work and eventually return.

Some say the sports and organized extracurricular-activities we pressure our students into here in the US distracts them from study. Some say the answers are to water down the curriculum for US students so as not to damage their self-esteem or interrupt their after school party time.

Biology, chem, physics? Same story. High school requirements here are a shallow one year. In India and China? They study these subjects EVERY year. My humble opinion is that we demand more science, less modern dance. No wonder our young athletes, Glee-kids, and martial artists  do so poorly in college. They hardly studied in high school. Or middle school.

Some make the case that our well-rounded and "everyone is perfectly the best" educational approach defines more creative, innovative, entrepreneurial souls and this will be America's edge. Resume for the new millenium: stupid but creative; lazy but not a follower; no quantitative skills but great amateur jump shot.

Some make the case that in a technology age, let technology do what parents and teachers can't: keep the kids in their seats engaged in learning math. Bless you Sal Khan for attempting to do just that. Let's celebrate Pi Day by thinking deeply about how to act on evidence that some learners will stop, think, learn math if we give them the right tools.

Now, let's move Khan Academy into the high schools and colleges and graduate the next generation of scientists, mathematicians and glorious, geek-humor loving nerds. Happy Pi Day!

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