Wednesday, November 13, 2013

In Defense of Fuzzy Math

In case you didn't already know, my day job is to be a High School teacher. Specifically, math and technology. Recently, I've seen a lot of complaints and consternation about math education. It seems that we just can't make anyone happy.

I hear people talk about how we should be teaching harder math and more of it. Also how we're requiring too much and should focus on other things. The math should be harder. And easier. More of it. And less. We should not teach to the test. But we should push for higher test scores. Kids need to be pushed harder. Kids get too much homework.

The list goes on.

One of the ones that gets under my skin the most is when folks (parents, students, media, whomever) complain about fuzzy math. The protest is that students are being rewarded based on their work even if the answer is incorrect. This isn't new - math teachers have been awarding partial credit for ages. Remember being asked to show your work? That's exactly what was going on.

I'm not sure what it is. Perhaps teachers have become more transparent and explicit about what we're doing? We're now specifically saying "we want students to understand the process and that's more important than always getting the right answer." Or perhaps it's the growing impact of high stakes testing? After all, teachers care about process, but standardized tests can only measure answers. I can understand the tension between these ideas.

Here's the catch, though. The purpose of teaching math is not to learn to solve for x. Now, here's where I should say that all these views are just mine, not my school's, state's, professions, etc. Ok, back to the point.

So if we don't teach math to learn to solve equations, why do we? Well, the skills you acquire while learning Algebra and Geometry are problem solving, critical thinking, logic, deduction, reasoning, etc.
Sound familiar? This is basically a laundry list of the qualities that most people think we most need to teach our kids. Math is one of the ways we do that.

Students don't just need to learn to perform calculations. This day and age we have calculators for that. Instead, they need to learn the theory and process behind it all. They need to learn to think, not just recite. So we as teachers have to reward their thinking process, often even above the end product.

Will all students use the quadratic formula after high school? No. Will all students use some form of problem solving after high school? Yes, definitely.

Now, whether we're teaching the right math subjects is a whole other discussion, but one that's probably worth having. In the meantime, lay off the fuzzy math, guys. It's not about what x equals, it's about skills they'll use throughout life.


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