Since I’ve started reading blogs, I’ve seen a lot of instances of people ranting madly about topics they don’t understand very well. These people also don’t understand why they aren’t taken more seriously, or why, in fact, the whole system doesn’t immediately bow to their sagacity. But now that I, too, am a blogger, I’m beginning to understand the severely-debilitating effect the freedom to publish uncensored material has on human judgment. So here I am joining the ranks of men screaming into a hurricane, and unknowingly pointing the wrong direction.
A recent story from the NY Times warns repeatedly that those tricky little Asian people are eating a gazillion tons of fish every day and getting way too good at math. You see, for at least the last ten years both a generic statement and its complement have been considered racist if they involve black people in any way. Further, the whole feeling-generally-uncomfortable-about-anything-Islamic thing has been used as the hook on enough network TV shows that people are starting to get pretty sensitive about that, too. But we haven’t done anything really bad to the Asians since Vietnam, so it’s pretty much okay to treat them as one big group and find reasons to be scared of them.
Apparently, kids in Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan do very well, on average, on standardized math tests. It’s supposed to send off alarm bells and spur us to reform the educational system. But the stat is not what it’s made out to be.
Here are three of the more practical reasons we might want students to be mathematically competent:
1) it helps them balance their checkbook and etc.
2) it’s necessary background for engineers and accountants, etc.
3) it’s necessary for innovation. great technological and scientific breakthroughs are made by people who understand math
But here’s why childrens’ average test scores are irrelevant to these points
1) (math helps with life) It’s increasingly unnecessary for the average person to know math. Computers will do it all for you. Anything that requires a minimal amount of the sort of mathematical, logical, and/or algorithmic thinking employed by a math, science, or computer-type person can now be automated to the point where an intelligent chimpanzee can do it. Want to calculate your BMI? Don’t bother with the formula. Just plug in the numbers to a calculator, which automatically multiplies them to each other for you. Don’t want to figure out your taxes? Plug it into Quicken. Or hire an accountant, who also doesn’t know math very well but can plug things into Quicken more efficiently than you. Don’t know how much longer to boil an ostrich egg than a chicken egg? Don’t bother with dimensional analysis. Just look it up online.
2) (math helps with jobs) Partially, more of the same argument as point 1) applies here. Want to be an airline pilot? Don’t worry yourself too much with the math. Just make sure the numbers from this instrument agree with the numbers from that instrument, and the computers will take care of everything. The percentage of people who really need to be good at math is quite small, so we should be more interested in the scores of the top 5% or top 1% of students than the average score.
3) (math leads to technological and scientific excellence) The average performance of students is simply irrelevant to this one. Big ideas come from people who work hard on problems because they’re intrigued by them and genuinely interested in the work itself. They need a spark of creativity to go with their technical competence, but spark is the really essential thing. It’s far easier to be very good at electrical engineering (for example) than it is to do something important in it. And frankly, hours upon hours drilling practice problems until you’ve memorized all the methods of solution is not going to get you far beyond good test scores. But that, as best I can tell from here, it’s what’s going on with the Asia/West divide in math scores. The Asian kids study longer and work harder. The cuiture is extremely performance-based, so that parents push their kids hard, but they only thing anyone cares about are good grades and good test scores. Since the tests don’t require creativity, why bother encouraging it?
I’ve been teaching American high school kids for a while. Many of them have been first or second generation Americans from Asian families. They grew up bilingual and their households retain most of the traditional values of Korea/Taiwan/Japan, including those relating to education. I’ve also taught kids from America, the UK, India, France, Italy, Turkey, Japan, China, Mexico, Canada, and various places I hadn’t even heard of before i met them. I’ve taught whites, blacks, east asians, south asians, hispanics, polynesians, native americans, and various combinations thereof. And guess what? They’re all the same. Not the kids, I mean, of course they’re quite different from each other. But I do not see any systematic difference in competence, creativity, interest, brilliance, ability to concentrate, or whatever other factors are essential to doing great things with technical material.
It has been my experience that when you look at the top few percent – the ones who are truly gifted at this stuff, and occasionally ask questions that startle me with their insight, or find clearer and more direct explanations of the topic at hand than I had sniffed up myself – are more likely to be male. Not exclusively, of course. The most insightful student I ever had was a girl. But that gender bias is the only systematic tendency that’s stuck out to me.
So the Asian kids kicking American kids’ butts at math is not a clarion call. It may be a benchmark for how effective our educational system is, and how seriously our culture treats education, but not for how many great thinkers we’ll have in this country twenty years from now. If we want to have a home-grown army of thinkers and innovators, we should be more concerned with how much kids like math and want to do it on their own, rather than how many formulas they’ve memorized by age 10. A high schooler’s knowledge of math won’t get you all that far, anyway. It only comes from higher study, and America still has the world’s best system of institutes of higher learning. So it’s not a matter of cramming more into their heads while they’re young. It’s a matter of honestly and fairly presenting to young people what math is and what it can do. As long as grade school doesn’t make kids hate math, it’s doing fine. The ones who have aptitude will naturally gravitate towards it. We need to make sure that when they do, there’s someone there to guide that top 5%, and that we’re not all too busy worrying about the grade of the kid in the middle of the class to notice that the kid at the top just proved a new result in number theory.
My guess is that most of the people who spend their time screaming, “The Asians are coming! They traded their abacuses for TI-89’s and they’re going to swipe the technical carpet from under our fat, complacent feet!” know much more about statistics than about the process of becoming technically competent, one part of which is to learn never to take statistics at face value. If our goal is really to raise the average test score, it has to come as much from a shift in cultural values as a change to the educational system. But if our goal is to be a scientifically and technologically vital society, the masses are not the place to look.