February 15, 2006

Boiling In Ignorance

They say (incorrectly) that if you put a frog in boiling water it will try to jump out. But if you put it in warm water and slowly raise the temperature, you can boil it.

What is true is that if you don’t teach people to value important knowledge, they will allow you to perpetuate ignorance in their children.

Worse, they may insist that you don’t waste your time trying to elevate their children out of their ignorance.

Parents, Students Fine With Math, Science

Fifty-seven percent of parents say “things are fine” with the amount of math and science being taught in their child’s public school. High school parents seem particularly content — 70 percent say their child gets the right amount of science and math. […]

Yet where public officials and employers see slipping production in the sciences as a threat to the nation’s economy, parents and students don’t share that urgency.

Ignorance was good enough for me, it should be good enough for my children.

The article above talks about how the president has started to talk about making math and science education a national priority. But I’ll actually believe that when I start hearing him say that math and science education are essential in the war on terrorism.

Back to the story. Levels of math and the most basic science knowledge in the general population are abysmal, so it’s no wonder that few have any respect for it. Watching these people talk about not needing more math and science for their kids is like someone telling you they need two spoons to eat their tomato soup and then watching them turn the spoons around to use them like chopsticks.

(Disclosure: I work in math education research.)

Posted by James at February 15, 2006 9:28 PM
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And one of the reasons I respect James is that he works in a part of the world where knowing RBI's is prized more than knowing algorithms. The only job worse is in the non-profit arts community. This I know. Respect, James and all at SimCalc and anyone in any form of education. You're on the frontline against the real terrorist threat, Ignorance.

Posted by: ThirdMate at February 16, 2006 7:23 AM

People are afraid of math and science. These subjects are not easy to understand, and when we were young, they weren't necessarily taught well. In fact, my high school calculus teacher's favorite phrase was "take my word for it, k?" She couldn't explain to us how a derivative related to the real world.

But I do believe there's hope... I think education is improving despite all of the idiots who think it has no value. That seems to be a quality that teachers possess -- wanting to be better teachers, so even with zero support, they advance their techniques. Yesterday when I was in M's class, a little boy discovered the Greek alphabet online. He was so excited. He printed it out and carried it around for the whole period. I showed him how some of the letters have corollaries in our alphabet, and later I overheard him explaining it to his teacher. I also found out how to pronounce "xi," (that's one I'd never seen!), and he was very excited about that. When people are encouraged to discover things that interest them, they enjoy learning.

Posted by: Maggie at February 16, 2006 8:58 AM

Children go through an "age of discovery" which many lose once they reach adolescence.

School needs to spark a child's interest while they are still in this age, or risk losing them.

Yes, I see reason for hope. Our project has a ton of video of kids learning. One of the things we do is analyze this video for insights into what kids can do and how they do it. And sometimes it's amazing -- average kids can make extraordinary leaps. Education research is about trying to bring those sorts of insights to more and more students on a regualr basis.

But this story is not encoutraging, considering that not much headway can be made if parents don't have respect for learning.

One of the other things I have learned is how good our children's school is, comparitively speaking.

Posted by: James at February 16, 2006 9:15 AM

Okay, let me throw this one out there -- people dislike intelligent people as naturally as they dislike other aberrations from the norm, such as a physical or mental disability.

It is natural, I think, to fear and shun unusual behavior. This "naturalness" hit home for me when we did a unit on disabilities with Brownie Girl Scouts and I discovered how much the girls feared and disliked what was different from typical behavior. I know I've posted about that on my blog, so I won't go on.

So those scary, weird, and sometimes elitist smart people who like math and science... we don't want our kids turning into that.

Posted by: Maggie at February 16, 2006 11:30 AM

Oops, I've got another one, far more benign.

Maybe their children are getting more math and science than they can understand, so they think they're getting enough.

You know, James, that my niece calls me at least weekly with an algebra problem. Her dad was an accountant, and now he's a successful stock broker. Your niece used to call me with math questions. Her uncles couldn't help her -- an engineer, a pharmacist, and a chemist. They always called me as a last resort. And I don't think I'm very good at math!! You know I'm just okay. I know the department chair of CS was never impressed with my mathematical abilities.

So I would guess that parents in this situation think their kids are getting enough math.

Posted by: Maggie at February 16, 2006 11:35 AM

Yeah, I was thinking about this some more.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that people need to have someone nationally make this case to them.

Maybe some businesses are threatened by a wider knowledge of math. I don't know any mathematicians who play slot machines, for example. ;)

Posted by: James at February 16, 2006 11:46 AM

Part of it is that they don't see the usefulness of the higher math and don't enjoy solving math problems. Much of that comes from the way it is taught. There's nothing fun or cool or "sexy" about math and science. These are subjects that should be taught as interactively as possible.

L. just did a unit in her teacher credentialing program on science education and discovered that the fifth grade class she is in is woefully behind. Still, she got them to be exceited about physical vs chemical change. It was al in the approach and in makign sure everyone was learning.

Posted by: briwei at February 16, 2006 11:56 AM
I don't know any mathematicians who play slot machines, for example. ;)

What about blackjack? :-)

Posted by: Jim at February 16, 2006 2:51 PM

As you probably know, you can play blackjack in a way that gives you much better odds.

Of course, it involves a little math. ;)

Posted by: James at February 16, 2006 3:03 PM

Ignorance was good enough for me, it should be good enough for my children.

Ah, yes. This type of uncritical thinking is how we ended up with Bushco. The man himself is a study in the incurious mind.

Posted by: Patti M. at February 16, 2006 3:06 PM

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