The chloroformed mind: the case against teaching math
Peter Gray has a fascinating piece in Psychology Today arguing, quite counter-intuitively, that in order to improve math scores we should stop teaching math – at least at the elementary level. He gives the example of L.P. Benezet, superintendent of schools in Manchester, who ran experiments along these lines in New Hampshire back in the 1930’s:
Think of it. Today whenever we hear that children aren’t learning much of what is taught in school the hue and cry from the educational establishment is that we must therefore teach more of it! If two hundred hours of instruction on subject X does no good, well, let’s try four hundred hours. If children aren’t learning what is taught to them in first grade, then let’s start teaching it in kindergarten. And if they aren’t learning it in kindergarten, that could only mean that we need to start them in pre-kindergarten! But Benezet had the opposite opinion. If kids aren’t learning much math in the early grades despite considerable time and effort devoted to it, then why waste time and effort on it?
As part of the plan, he asked the teachers of the earlier grades to devote some of the time that they would normally spend on arithmetic to the new third R–recitation. He wrote that by "recitation" he meant, "speaking the English language." He did "not mean giving back, verbatim, the words of the teacher or the textbook." The children would be asked to talk about topics that interested them–experiences they had had, movies they had seen, or anything that would lead to genuine, lively communication and discussion. This, he thought, would help them develop the capacity to reason and communicate logically. He also asked the teachers to give their pupils some practice in measuring and counting things, to assure that they would have some practical experience with numbers.
In order to evaluate the experiment, Benezet arranged for a graduate student from Boston University to come up and test the Manchester children at various times in the sixth grade. The results were remarkable. At the beginning of their sixth grade year, the children in the experimental classes, who had not been taught any arithmetic, performed much better than the children in the traditional classes on story problems that could be solved by common sense and a general understanding of numbers and measurement. Of course, at the beginning of sixth grade, those in the experimental classes performed worse on the standard school arithmetic tests, where the problems were set up in the usual school manner and could be solved simply by applying the rote-learned algorithms. But by the end of sixth grade the experimental classes had completely caught up on this and were still way ahead of the others on story problems.
You should read the entire thing, because it really is a fascinating and persuasive idea. I think the early years of math had a terrible effect on my enjoyment of the subject.
However, I would take the whole thing a step further. Perhaps a great many of the subjects we learn as children and teens should in fact be learned later in life. What if in fact education is not meant to be the first chapter and work and career the second, but rather the two are meant to be much more intertwined than we currently believe?
I know that I personally was not ready for many of the lessons I learned as a child or teenager. I was bright and succeeded in school, but I had trouble with context. I think it is almost impossible for a young person to develop the necessary empathy, for instance, to truly formulate the correct contexts needed to understand history in a terribly deep or meaningful way.
If anything we should focus on stories and language when we are young. It’s fairly well established that children can learn languages at a very young age. Why not really immerse our elementary students in language studies – and in English studies as well. I don’t mean terribly formal ones either, those can come later. I mean that we should engage our children in the art of speaking and story-telling, in team work and problem solving, and in learning to make decisions. Never underestimate the power of play or the importance of a story.
Add to that a real move to learn other languages and you will have children who can think – maybe not children who can do their multiplication tables right away – but children who can think well and reason and who understand what a story is and how it can be used.
They can learn the particulars later – the math, the grammar, the names and dates. There should be no end to our education. This artificial cut-off point – college, high-school, whatever – should be abolished.
P.S. – this is as strong a case as I can make against a national curriculum or national standards, I think. We will lose all of our ability to experiment and innovate and find new and better (or perhaps older and better ways. After all, the oldest form of ‘education’ is story-telling. Why have we so dismissed that art in modern times?)