Why Johnny Doesn't Get It

My wife and I home school our 15-year-old son, William. Each night after work, I take my "Dad" hat off and put on my "math teacher" hat.

When I first began teaching William algebra, I used traditional textbooks and the traditional flash-card approach to instruction. After extensive explanation, repetitive problem-solving, and occasional frustration, he was largely able to master the straightforward equations and formulas that he had been drilled on.

At a certain point in the learning process, I presented William with a series of problems that could be solved easily through the formulas he had learned, but that also required an understanding of how to apply the formulas. To my dismay, he was wholly stumped.

Each day at work, I witness first-hand the critical importance of the education and training students need to succeed and prosper in an increasingly specialized labor market. But it took this revealing experience with my son to realize that the kind of instruction we give our kids determines their ability to sink or swim.

The experience taught me that the old methods of math and science instruction are severely antiquated, and we must reform our approach or risk falling increasingly further behind.

The US continues to shift to an information-based economy that requires more use of everyday mathematics and more sophisticated applications of mathematical concepts. Developing math skills that would suffice for a cashier was a valid goal in the 1950s, but today's students will live and work in a world steeped in technology and dependent on advanced problem solving. As such, the old way of teaching by rote memorization and drilling is increasingly incompatible with information age demands.

The recent Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) found that mathematics instruction in Japan, where students consistently score higher than American students, is based on understanding and applying mathematical concepts rather than on the routine mastery of facts. According to the TIMMS survey, 71 percent of Japanese mathematics teachers said that the goal of their lessons is to develop mathematical thinking - compared with only 24 percent of US teachers.

Clearly, parents, teachers, students, businesses, and all those impacted by poor performance in math and science must find new approaches to teaching and learning. By using inadequate instruction models, we are seriously shortchanging our kids. And, in doing so, we also set the stage for an ill-equipped future labor force that will drag down productivity and eat away at bottom lines across the country.

Science and math used to be areas of study that attracted only the "smart" kids. For them, the old teaching methods worked because the natural aptitudes of this select group of students allowed them to work. Rote learning led to conceptual understanding, which led to broader applications of the mathematical principles. In other words, they got it. There were always enough of these math-smart young people to meet the demands of business. Accordingly, no one ever questioned the basic teaching techniques that were being used.

But times have changed. Today's high-tech economy demands an effective, broadly applicable, working knowledge of mathematics by nearly everyone. So, whether a student is naturally drawn to math or not, he or she must, somehow, learn it. And teachers must, somehow, find a way to connect all students to it.

THE National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has established voluntary standards for mathematics education that recognize the need to make mathematics more interesting to students and to show them the interrelated nature of mathematics and other important subjects.

This type of instruction of mathematical concepts not only helps students understand more sophisticated mathematics and science, but is also useful in the increasingly quantitative fields of economics, psychology, and political science.

Some "back-to-basics" critics refuse to see the forest for the trees and continually deride these efforts to improve math instruction. With the world around us changing so rapidly, this horse-and-buggy thinking simply will not cut it. We all must step outside the box and use whatever means necessary, conventional and even unconventional, to ensure that our kids are learning what they need to succeed. Their individual fortunes and the country's future prosperity depend on it.

* Timothy M. Schwalm Sr., a senior process engineer, statistician, and supervisor with Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, N.Y., serves as an industry consultant on mathematics textbooks.

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