Monday, March 25, 2013

"Because It Is" says Mr Gove

There's a story I tell in my math ed classes about my daughter when she was in middle school. One day, after supper, she drew a 45 degree angle on a piece of paper and asked me "Dad, why is this 45 degrees here" pointing close to the origin of the angle, "and 45 degrees here as well ?" ponting to the angle rays some 6 inches from the origin. "Look how much further it is between the rays" she said incredulously. Never missing the chance for an instant math lesson we spent the next 15 minutes discussing how angles are measures of rotation about a point, using our arms to demonstrate, and no matter how far away from that point you go the number of degrees is always the same. She seemed wonderfully satisfied with this newfound understanding and so I ventured to ask what the teacher had said when she asked. "Because it is" she said; the teacher said because it is.

In our rush to cover 'everything' there is often little time to develop genuine understanding of the math we teach and, in this case, I think I'm being generous to my daughter's teacher. I don't think she understood the concept of rotation herself and so could not answer the question meaningfully. All too often though, especially in math, we want children to remember things, for later, without fully understanding them. This seems to be what Mr Gove, the current Education Secretary in the UK seems to want teachers in that country to do. "A mountain of data" his critics say, to be memorized by rote. Facts to be learned without any sense of what they mean or when they should be used. Things are so bleak that the teachers' union has passed a lack of confidence vote in the Education Secretary and HM Inspector of Schools chief.

Their goal is to have an education system that is "robust and rigorous", words that always seem to mean lots of fact retention and memorization especially in math. "Back to the basics" yet again; a basic lack of understanding. I call it the "Because It Is" curriculum.

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