So, the Atlantic posted this article about how poor America’s math scores are. And that our scores are going down. And while that’s super important… it’s also just a number. The more interesting question is how to fix that number. And the answer is not to cut arts funding!!
Thankfully the Atlantic also published an article on Monday about rewarding effort instead of achievement in a math class. This article is lovely. I think my undergraduate college did an excellent job of this. The exams were hard and lots of partial credit was given. If you understood the concepts and could apply them to new, hard problems then you were rewarded with at least a C. In opposition, my current university holds accuracy and computation in high regard. In a engineering course a student may be expected to complete 6 pages of computations (which look exactly like the homework and contain no critical thinking) in less than an hour for an exam. If the student only makes 3 minor computational errors, then they receive a B on the exam. I think this is an example of rewarding achievement over effort. My current university is often rewarding brute force and calculator accuracy over critical thinking and conceptual understanding. Why can’t we reward students for effort?
This semester I have had the privilege to teach the students who don’t like math. And I do consider it a privilege. I get to teach the students who are communications, arts, and theater majors. They are future journalists, performers, authors, advertising executives and parents (among many other things!). I’m so grateful to have the chance to teach these students who are not “math people” that they can understand mathematics. It’s not magic. It’s just math.
Why are we so concerned with the young genius mathematician who never struggles? This is an ideal that only a few can achieve. Most of us mathematicians toil and struggle and fight for each mathematical result. We are not gods, nor are we special. We may think differently from the “arts” people, but that doesn’t mean I can’t dance. And it doesn’t mean that they can’t do mathematics.