A mathematician’s lament

My favorite thing about Jo Boaler’s course “How to Learn Math” so far has been the assigned reading.  She assigned Paul Lockhart’s “A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form.”  

I think this should be required reading for anyone who teaches math, supervises the teaching of math, or is a parent of a child learning math.

It’s a powerful piece.

He starts by describing a terrible nightmare a musician had.  In it, music is taught as math is in many of our schools:  as a collection of rules that must be memorized.  Students do not play or listen to music until after they have learned music notation and theory.

He then goes on to critique the current state of math education and claim that it is destroying the creative aspect of math by discouraging exploration and discovery.

Some of his suggestions are a bit unrealistic (just play games in math class) and some I completely disagree with (schools of education are a complete crock).

But I appreciate his ability to imagine what mathematics education could be.  I love his passion for mathematics.  And I love that he states so succinctly what we know from research about what many kids think about math: “They say,  ‘math class is stupid and boring’ and they are right.”

Years of research have show us that students have a great deal of anxiety about math and recent research shows this may begin at an even earlier age than we once believed.  Maybe Lockhart’s solutions are too radical.  Maybe they aren’t.  But it seems to me that doing the same thing that we have been doing won’t produce different results.

What do you think?

Want to read the book?  Click here.

Check out the some of research on math anxiety:

Vukovic, R. K., Kieffer, M. J., Bailey, S. P., & Harari, R. R. (2012). Mathematics anxiety in young children: Concurrent and longitudinal associations with mathematical performance. Contemporary Educational Psychology.

2 thoughts on “A mathematician’s lament

  1. Nico

    I was inspired by the analogy at the start of the story which compared Music programs and Art programs relative to Math. A powerful image showcasing how the approaches to teaching are completely different. I am also taking the course and having recently worked on Session 2, I am impressed power of praise and it’s effect on Mindset (Carol Dweck Research). I am enjoying the paths of thought this course is taking me on. Looking forward to your posts relating to the course.

    A question session 2 left me with: How do I change my program so that I am grading students based on effort, and not results?
    Is this even the right question?
    Effort vs Results debate….go!

    1. nicorap@hotmail.com Post author

      Nico, I’m glad to hear you are enjoying to course as well. I’ve been on vacation for the past week so I haven’t started session 2 yet, but I’m interested to learn more about the Mindset research.

      You bring up a really interesting question about grading. The question it raises for me is how we measure results and effort. Are results measured by a written test or a portfolio? Are they measured by comparing to peers or benchmarks? Are they measured by how much growth/progress an individual has made over a course of time? Is effort measured by homework or participation or by classwork completed? I think grading and assessment is a really complicated issue– What are your thoughts?