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Northwest Voices

Seattle Times letters to the editor

October 19, 2008 at 4:32 PM

Math education

Let’s talk about it

There is no question that mathematics education in the U.S. and in Washington state needs improving [“A formula for lifting Washington out of its math mess,” guest commentary, Oct. 12]. There is also no question that a return to the good old days of teaching students skills minus an understanding of what those skills can be used for is not the remedy needed. The author cites impressive statistics, based on results of Advanced Placement (AP) tests. Yet voices from all over the world, including Singapore, are reporting more and more convincingly that gearing education to the passing of such tests fails the students in serious ways.

Why do we live in a society where so many enjoy doing Sudoko math puzzles without making the connection that the thinking required to work out the puzzle is a vital ingredient of mathematics?

Unlike Ted Nutting, few of us who favor mathematics-education reform would advocate discarding other people’s ideas in favor of our own.

There is a large overlap between traditional mathematics teaching done well and reform mathematics teaching done well. What many of us, including [Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction ] Terry Bergeson are aiming for is incorporating the underlying tenets of the reform — that is, engaging students in building their own understanding and formulating mathematical ideas clearly enough so that they can discuss them, to strengthen the teaching of mathematics.

Take a look at the work of the Washington State Education Coordinating Council, where administrators, higher-education faculty members, teachers, business stakeholders and Bergeson and her staff are working together to create a K-20 mathematics system that builds on the strengths of both traditional and reform mathematics teaching. The task is complex, challenging and at times frustrating. What makes it possible is the breadth of perspective and knowledge of the community working, and the respect with which we hold each other.

Progress is impeded by those who, like Nutting, allow the perception of their own infallibility to permit the unleashing of accusations and slurs, demonstrating a lack of respect essential for civil discourse.

Our schools can benefit from the rich collection of knowledge and research in Washington state, but we will not make any progress without a baseline of respect for all viewpoints regarding the learning of mathematics.

— Virginia Warfield, Seattle

Comments | More in Education, Washington Legislature

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