Some readers have called to my attention a pair of recent stories from the New York Times that you may find interesting.
First, Audrey noted another dispatch on the eternal struggle over how math ought to be taught:
For the second time in a generation, education officials are rethinking the teaching of math in American schools.
The changes are being driven by students’ lagging performance on international tests and mathematicians’ warnings that more than a decade of so-called reform math — critics call it fuzzy math — has crippled students with its de-emphasizing of basic drills and memorization in favor of allowing children to find their own ways to solve problems.
You should read the whole thing. My take: basic skills are really important, and understanding is too. Veering too far toward either extreme is probably a mistake. Messing around with numbers (and geometrical objects, and sets, etc.) improves one’s facility at messing around with such things, but it can also be used to help students think about problem solving more broadly. And to the extent that rote drills bore the heck out of a lot of kids (especially very bright kids), they should not be overused.
And, here was Audrey’s quick reaction to the piece:
I feel a little bit like playing spot-the-false-dichotomy when I read it, but my favourite is the way the article seems to suggest that either you teach math rigourously or you use “fuzzy math”, which involves “language” to “explain things”.
Sure makes me ashamed of having used all those silly English words proving the Completeness Theorem…
As the name implies, the program tests what the creators call myths, hypotheses taken from folklore, history, movies, the Internet and urban legends. Can a skunk’s smell can be neutralized with tomato juice? Did the Confederacy come up with a two-stage rocket that could strike Washington from Richmond, Va.? Can a sunken ship be raised with Ping-Pong balls? Could a car stereo be so loud that it would blow out the windows?
Mr. Hyneman and Mr. Savage, who produce Hollywood special effects and gadgets for a living, come up with ways to challenge each thesis and build experiments with a small crew. If fire and explosions or, say, rotting pig carcasses happen to be involved, well, that’s entertainment.
Though not a regular watcher of the show, I’ve enjoyed it the times I tuned in. It does have a jaunty This-Old-Exploding-Car feel to it, and models hypothesis testing very nicely. However, I do wonder what to make of the fact that even science programs seem to need to appeal to the viewer’s lizard brain in order to achieve commercial success.
Then again, the Mythbusters team claims not to be aimed at teaching us science:
Mr. Hyneman … insists that he and the “Mythbusters” team “don’t have any pretense of teaching science.” His wife, he noted, is a science teacher, and he knows how difficult that profession is. “If we tried to teach science,” he said, “the shows probably wouldn’t be successful.”
“If people take away science from it,” Mr. Hyneman said, “it’s not our fault.” But if the antics inspire people to dig deeper into learning, he said, “that’s great.”
So, do science teachers nowadays have much opportunity to blow things up, set them afire, launch them into the air, and so forth? (You don’t have to name names here, I’m just curious as to whether flash TV attention grabbers are useful — or necessary — in classrooms filled with TV-watchers.)