Why Do Americans Stink at Math?
Lastly, another panel raved about a new book by Elizabeth Green, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) (www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0393081591/tilsoncapitalpar). Below is an extended excerpt from last weekend’s NY Times Magazine, entitled Why Do Americans Stink at Math?:
Instead of having students memorize and then practice endless lists of equations — which Takahashi remembered from his own days in school — Matsuyama taught his college students to encourage passionate discussions among children so they would come to uncover math’s procedures, properties and proofs for themselves. One day, for example, the young students would derive the formula for finding the area of a rectangle; the next, they would use what they learned to do the same for parallelograms. Taught this new way, math itself seemed transformed. It was not dull misery but challenging, stimulating and even fun.
Takahashi quickly became a convert. He discovered that these ideas came from reformers in the United States, and he dedicated himself to learning to teach like an American. Over the next 12 years, as the Japanese educational system embraced this more vibrant approach to math, Takahashi taught first through sixth grade. Teaching, and thinking about teaching, was practically all he did. A quiet man with calm, smiling eyes, his passion for a new kind of math instruction could take his colleagues by surprise. “He looks very gentle and kind,” Kazuyuki Shirai, a fellow math teacher, told me through a translator. “But when he starts talking about math, everything changes.”
Takahashi was especially enthralled with an American group called the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, or N.C.T.M., which published manifestoes throughout the 1980s, prescribing radical changes in the teaching of math. Spending late nights at school, Takahashi read every one. Like many professionals in Japan, teachers often said they did their work in the name of their mentor. It was as if Takahashi bore two influences: Matsuyama and the American reformers.
Takahashi, who is 58, became one of his country’s leading math teachers, once attracting 1,000 observers to a public lesson. He participated in a classroom equivalent of “Iron Chef,” the popular Japanese television show. But in 1991, when he got the opportunity to take a new job in America, teaching at a school run by the Japanese Education Ministry for expats in Chicago, he did not hesitate. With his wife, a graphic designer, he left his friends, family, colleagues — everything he knew — and moved to the United States, eager to be at the center of the new math.
As soon as he arrived, he started spending his days off visiting American schools. One of the first math classes he observed gave him such a jolt that he assumed there must have been some kind of mistake. The class looked exactly like his own memories of school. “I thought, Well, that’s only this class,” Takahashi said. But the next class looked like the first, and so did the next and the one after that. The Americans might have invented the world’s best methods for teaching math to children, but it was difficult to find anyone actually using them.
It wasn’t the first time that Americans had dreamed up a better way to teach math and then failed to implement it. The same pattern played out in the 1960s, when schools gripped by a post-Sputnik inferiority complex unveiled an ambitious “new math,” only to find, a few years later, that nothing actually changed. In fact, efforts to introduce a better way of teaching math stretch back to the 1800s. The story is the same every time: a big, excited push, followed by mass confusion and then a return to conventional practices.
The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them. One 1965 Peanuts cartoon depicts the young blond-haired Sally struggling to understand her new-math assignment: “Sets . . . one to one matching . . . equivalent sets . . . sets of one . . . sets of two . . . renaming two. . . .” After persisting for three valiant frames, she throws back her head and bursts into tears: “All I want to know is, how much is two and two?”
Today the frustrating descent from good intentions to tears is playing out once again, as states across the country carry out the latest wave of math reforms: the Common Core.