Thursday, July 5, 2007

Music to my ears...

5 July 2007
by Nakonia (Niki) Hayes

Using music, you’ll understand where we are in American mathematics education.

Suppose those learning to play musical instruments had to learn to play them by ear. There would be no focus on the symbols of music, sounds of specific notes, practicing of scales, learning classical pieces, or even learning some standard tunes (“Chop Sticks”) from which creative “extensions” could be made.

The small percentage of students who could play an instrument by ear could not help others as they try to craft their own natural talents into productions, because the intuitive players couldn’t translate their innate abilities into internationally-known music symbols.

So the adopted method for all other students would be called “discovery learning.” Students would “manipulate” their instruments with teachers “facilitating” the students’ efforts to discover how to form a particular tune, which, of course, they had created themselves.

There would be no continuous practice—no “drill and kill” of repetition. All tunes would be considered acceptable because they were the original, personal creation of each student. Comparisons to respected or classical renditions might be possible, but that would be extremely time consuming, and it would not be considered “relevant” in today’s modern classroom.

Students who needed to learn by the old-fashioned methods, such as studying music symbols, their related sounds, and repetitive practice would need extra tutoring. Supplemental materials might be allowed that taught some “basic skills,” but the bigger picture to learning music, or the conceptual approach, must be maintained. All of this supplementary material would cost extra money for the schools—and extra time for the students and teachers.

Schools of education that train teachers would insist this “discovery” method of learning music is progressive and provides social justice for girls and students of color in the music profession. They would base much of their beliefs on a few education researchers in the 1970s who had concluded that inductive and intuitive methods--those that focus on process rather than product--were needed by these two “subgroups.”

They assert while traditional music lessons that teach procedures and memorization without understanding may lead to a facility with technique, note reading and instrument mastery, those lessons do not lead to improvisation or playing music with feeling.

Further, with a glowing love for the use of technology in music – such as computer sampling, electronic instruments, and digital recording technology that can improve the sound, including the adjustment of pitch problems so that all singers sound like they're on pitch no matter how flat (or sharp) they sing—education schools say music students no longer need to learn the basics of good vocal production, music composition, or even tuning their instruments.

Finally, music education tells teachers that white males and Asian students were the only ones who had benefited from the traditional methods of learning music for the past several thousand years. The progress made in music by the “ancients” and their methods are to be considered of no significance or relevance in the child-directed, “discovery” teaching classroom.

Many elementary school teachers liked the discovery method because it did not require their learning the music symbols and the many complicated relationships that could result from those symbols. High school music teachers hated the discovery method because they had difficulty finding enough qualified students to form a school band, symphony, or choir.

Many parents of elementary students accepted the discovery learning because the students seemed to “enjoy” it and they always had good grades in the subject. After all, the grading was based on subjective judgments about the student’s process of creating his or her own musical piece, and it was not a comparison to another’s work.

The consequence, however, is a growing lack of new musicians. This is impacting, among many music-related scenarios, high school bands, symphonies, and musical productions in theatres. Foreign students who had studied traditional music lessons are becoming the heart of America’s shrinking music scene.

How long before the public refuses to tolerate this destruction of music education and ultimately music’s contribution to society and the world? Will it take five years, 10 years, or 20 years?

Will college music teachers stand by quietly as their incoming students’ proficiencies continually disintegrate? Will professional music companies and businesses ignore the shrinking pool of talent? Will business leaders believe the progressive philosophy that insists we must focus on “creativity thinking” and not worry about the significance of foundational work in the music discipline?
Now substitute “mathematics” for “music” and you have a picture of what has been happening in American mathematics education for the past 40 years.

“Whole math,” based on conceptual, intuitive, process-based thinking has replaced traditional mathematics education. (Yes, it is the parallel universe to the “whole language” fiasco that produced two generations of poor readers and writers in American education.)

Algorithms, symbolic manipulation, and basic skills are no longer mastered in elementary mathematics—and therefore in high school classes—because those represent the traditional, classical education formerly reserved only for white males, according to the leaders of “reform mathematics.” The traditional program represents “drill and kill,” they say. Traditionalists say the program offers “drill and skill,” as well as mastery of concepts.

This reform pedagogy was codified in 1989 by a private group called The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) when they published their Curriculum Standards for K-12 mathematics education. The National Science Foundation bought into their ideas, probably due to their emphasis on egalitarianism. From 1991 through 1999, the NSF pumped $83 million into universities and publishers that would create math curricula that supported the reformists’ social engineering agenda.

In 1999, more than 200 professional mathematicians sent a letter to Richard Riley, Education Secretary, asking him to withdraw support for the reform math products, due to their poor quality of mathematics instruction. He ignored them. Even more multi-millions have been funneled into the programs from both government and private sources through today.

Educators have latched onto these cash cows as money is offered to “pilot” reform programs and students have become research subjects. Math wars have erupted among parent groups and districts in pockets across the country as parents (and a few teachers) try to change the direction of mathematics education in their schools. Parents are learning, however, that schools really don’t want parent involvement if it means they are going to question curriculum choices. And test scores continue to show the disintegration of mathematics’ skills among American students.

When educators and businesses wonder why this is happening, they should think about students learning to play music by ear. That’s the real picture of mathematics education today. It’s been going on, officially, for almost two decades.

When will the people who can make a real difference—parents, colleges, and businesses who must look to foreign workers to bring in mathematical skills—conduct a reality check on the “whole math” philosophy?

When will they stop being schmoozed by an education establishment that’s protecting its turf and special interest groups? When will they demand a truthful answer to the question, “Whose interest is being served here?”

In essence, when will our children have advocates who understand proven mathematical logic and reasoning with regards to performance and product? Or will we continue to follow the false concept that equity and excellence can be achieved by everyone learning to play by ear?

*reprinted with the permission of the author, Niki Hayes.


Tony said...

Within the next 3 years, I will find myself standing at the head of a mathematics classroom. As I prepare to enter the fray of the math wars, I wonder if there cannot be some sort of acceptable compromise, some way to blend old and new into a successful whole. The comparison to music, while witty and effective, leaves out one of the chief differences between teaching math and music. Most children WANT to learn music. They learn scales and modes and theory by day, and then sing Green Day on the way home or play Kelly Clarkson on the piano. They will get the benefits of discovery learning on their own. Very few adolescents that I know will deliberately use their math outside of the classroom, outside of the most rudimentary arithmetic.

I certainly understand both sides to this ongoing argument. I am afraid to get caught in the middle and of being hated by both factions. Can't there be some sort of bipartisan accord here?

concernedCTparent said...

You ask a very good question. I've asked a similar one myself because I don't see "unconditional surrender" about to happen anytime soon. I've stressed many times that for me, this is not a dichotomy of old versus new, it's about what works versus what doesn't. I am simply anti-bad-math.

In the meantime, as with any war, there will be casualties. The casualties in this war will be children. Children who leave school thinking math is fun but not being able to do it well. This is simply unacceptable. There has to be a better way.

While few adolescents you know may not deliberately use their math outside of the classroom, the good teaching of mathematics will permeate their thinking considerably, perhaps without them even realizing it. It will certainly be be called upon beyond rudimentary arithmetic in that it builds upon skills of logic and reason that are crucial to many disciplines outside of math and science. Further, a strong foundation in mathematics opens many doors that would otherwise remain closed to them. Doors they may wish to open someday.

Someday those adolescents will grow up not only wanting music in their lives but also choices. Don't take those choices away in the name of fun. That would be shortsighted indeed.

When you walk into the mathematics classroom in the near future you will take on a huge responsibiity and your job will always be a challenging one. The fact that you are considering both sides of the debate is of considerable merit and I thank you for being open-minded. As part of your preparation please learn what you can about cognitive science and long term memory. Science has come along way in the 20 years since the NCTM came up with the Principles and Standards and we know so much more about how the human mind works. It just doesn't support the model of learning and teaching that has been preached for almost 2 decades.

Talk to professors of math and science and ask them what is lacking when those students leave K-12. Your job isn't just teaching them the particular grade, it is also making sure that piece of the puzzle you've handed them will fit properly.

Don't underestimate the elementary years and the foundations of mathematics because without them, most students cannot make the leaps in critical thinking and discovery that you wish them to make.

As a parent, I want my children to find joy in learning but they also need to understand the value of disciplined effort. Just as you would never feed a child an exclusive diet of junk food and candy because they like it and it makes them happy, a diet of math that lacks a strong foundation to build upon is not a healthy choice either.

You don't need to throw out what works whether old or new to fit some ideology and be politically correct one way or another. Don't buy into the rhetoric.

Evaluate your tools carefully, consider the research, compare the results that have been accumulated over the past two decades and ask yourself is it good math or anti-math? Does it have long term value? Will this help my students be globally competitive someday? Will the piece I help them build today fit in the puzzle of their life tomorrow?

The only side you should ever choose in the "math war" is the side of a child. Otherwise, what's the point?

Anonymous said...

The chasm between mathematicians and
educators must be bridged if our children are to be better served. ... I look forward to a future where mathematics education is the joint effort of mathematicians and educators." -- H. Wu

"How mathematicians can contribute to K-12 mathematics education", February 26, 2006