math is hard … on mathematical education

I recently read an inspiring article about an innovative school in India called Rishi Valley School which has a program called “School in a Box” to educate village children. They do all kinds of cool things, including educating the children in sustainable agriculture, and encouraging the children’s parents to learn how to read also by using what the children themselves write as material for the parents to read, but what interested me particularly was how they taught mathematics.

They ask the kids to count things: how many people in your village? How many women? How many men? How many children? They ask them also to measure things: how long is your nose? How long is your arm? How long is your house?
Then they ask them to keep charts: how long is the nose of everyone in your village? Then you can start to teach them about statistics — how long is the *average* nose in your village? How many people have bigger? How many people have smaller? — and then it’s natural to talk about things like standard deviation: is it the same if the average is the same, but if everyone has the same lenght, or if some people have really long nose and really short noses?

Frankly, not only village children could benefit from this involved, intelligent approach to mathematics. Current mathematics education is shameful. No wonder everyone hates mathematics.

The biggest problems with current math education are:
1) It’s completely divorced from anything kids might care about in the real world.
2) Teachers believe that it takes a special talent to be good at mathematics
3) It doesn’t make any sense so kids are forced to rely on rote memorization

Teaching mathematics by rote memorization is the biggest crime of all, because it misses the entire point of mathematics, which is: the world makes sense. There is an order and a pattern that underlies everything in the universe, and that pattern can be beautiful, if you look at it the right way.

I don’t expect everyone to see the abstract beauty in mathematics, but everyone can be taught, in a step-by-step way, that the world makes sense, and they can use their reasoning to make sense of things.

2 Responses to “math is hard … on mathematical education”


  1. 1 Anon February 2, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    I love it when you let your geeky side shine through!

  2. 2 julielavoie February 3, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    um…thanks. although i don’t know who you are. 😛


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A blog about culture and technology in South-East Asia.

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