When Andrew Hacker wrote his “Is Algebra Necessary” article I was basically like
But at least it was well written and brought up some good points about math instruction, many of which math instructors actually agree with. Hacker had a fresh opinion and voiced it in the Grey Lady, which generated a nice back and forth between educational philosophers and math teachers.
Then yesterday, Valerie Strauss decided that Roger C. Shank should throw in a few hundred words in her column space that basically amounted to “ditto, Andrew!” in maybe the most mailed-in piece of writing I’ve seen since that NY Times piece where Tom Friedman rides with a cabbie and learns things. However, being so terrible and so mailed-in, it’s not really worthy of a proper rebuttal. It is definitely worthy of a Fire Joe Morgan style treatment, though.
No, algebra isn’t necessary — and yes, STEM is overrated
This was written by Roger C. Schank, a cognitive scientist, artificial intelligence theorist, and education reformer.
Thank God. For a moment I thought we’d have some math education expertise added to the conversation. And I’m not totally sure any of these things are actual disciplines. Do I have to include the “C” in Roger C. Schank? So many questions.
Schank wrote this in response to a recent post I published by University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham entitled, “Yes, algebra is necessary.” Willingham was himself writing in response to a New York Times op-ed, “Is Algebra Necessary?” by Andrew Hacker.
Does that make this a response to the response to the response? I’m getting confused. I bet cognitive science can save me from my confusion.
Whenever I meet anyone who wants to talk about education, I immediately ask them to tell me the quadratic equation.
You are a liar. Either that or the Worst Party Guest in History. I’m picturing that conversation.
Party-goer: Hello. My daughter just started fourth grade.
Roger: CAN YOU TELL ME THE QUADRATIC EQUATION?
Party-goer: /checks to see if there’s a clear path to the exit.
I wonder if Roger also quizzes people he just met on other, cherry-picked singular content topics at parties.
Roger: WHAT’S OHM’S LAW? WHEN WAS THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS? DIAGRAM THIS SENTENCE FOR ME!
Almost no one ever can.
So some can? Yay! 😀
(Even the former chairman of the College Board doesn’t know it). Yet, we all seem to believe that everyone must learn algebra.
Roger’s party friends and a guy who used to be at the College Board can’t name the Quadratic Equation when quizzed, therefore we must rid Algebra from our society. That’s some rock solid logic there. I can see why Roger has so many more degrees than I do. I would also like to propose to make several other eliminations from our society, based on things I don’t remember:
- Traffic Lights, because I don’t know the difference between a red-with-a-green-arrow and a green-with-a-green-arrow.
- Cats, because I can only name, like, three breeds.
- Magnets, because, well, you know.
Why this religious zeal over algebra? It helps students learn how to think, people claim. Really? Are mathematicians the best thinkers you know? I know plenty of them who can’t handle their own lives very well.
Meanwhile, every liberal arts major Roger has met all live in houses with three-car garages and summer in the Hamptons. Also, at this point I’d like to remind you that according to Roger’s bio, he’s an expert on artificial intelligence. I’m going to go ahead and throw out that that might not be the most well-assimilated community.
Reasoning mathematically is a nice skill but one that is not relevant to most of life. We reason about many things: parenting, marriage, careers, finances, business, politics. Do we learn how to reason about these things by learning algebra? The idea is absurd.
LOL if you think finances don’t include math. Or than you can get a job in business without knowing math.
Yet, we hear argument after argument about the need for more STEM education (pretending we don’t have lots of unemployed science PhDs).
Ha ha. Who’s pretending that? Roger might be the first person ever to lose an argument with a straw man that he created. Oh, and here’s an interview on NPR’s Marketplace where they discuss how business and science PhDs are having a much easier time finding a job than history PhDs. But, as you were saying.
Everyone must study chemistry, memorize plant phylla and do lots of trigonometry.
Gross! That stuff sounds TERRIBLE. “Do lots of trigonometry”! Ugh. So much trigonometry-doing!
The argument for algebra rests on the transfer from math to other areas of life, something that has never been proven despite the claims of people such as University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.
Wait, we’re back on algebra now? I thought we were riffing on trigonometry. And phylla.
The defenders of the existing system love mathematics because it is easy to test and there can be test prep courses and state-wide tests and national tests and tests comparing us to other countries, all signifying nothing.
My God, I’m starting to think this entire article is a piece of performance art on how to build consistently more ridiculously straw man arguments one after another. Roger is building a Burning Man of straw man arguments, except instead of burning it to the ground at the end, he’ll quiz you on the periodic table to prove that Science is dumb. Who the hell loves mathematics because it yields more tests and test prep and makes the U.S. look like imbeciles? Who loves mathematics for that? (Answer: Roger’s straw man, that’s who).
It isn’t just mathematics that is the problem, of course. Why do we all learn to balance chemical equations or memorize homilies about U.S. history? Because back in 1892, the president of Harvard University designed curriculum and said that those subjects should be the basis for high school classes.
Any cognitive scientist worth his salt knows that it isn’t subjects like algebra or chemistry that matter. It is cognitive abilities that are important.
It is thinking that is important! Finally, we have the answer! We’re not teaching enough Thinking in school. I can’t wait to take Roger’s “Intro to Thinking” course. So much better than my previous course of “Algebra-where-you-don’t-think 101”.
You can live a productive and happy life without knowing anything about macroeconomics
If you read the last sentence of Roger’s blog post, he basically refutes this. Maybe. It’s hard to tell. At this point, I’m not sure if he’s writing it or it’s a computer algorithm spitting out attempts at truisms.
or trigonometry but you can’t function very well at all if you can’t make an accurate prediction or describe situations, or diagnose a problem, or evaluate a situation, person or object.
Oh my God. Please find me the math teacher that doesn’t want to foster those attributes in his or her students, then put me on the panel to help fire them. Because making predictions, describing situations, and problem solving are at the core of what math teachers do. I must admit, these fictional educators Roger creates in his mind DO sound awful.
The ability to reason from evidence really matters in life, the names of famous scientists and their accomplishments do not.
Dang, and I spent my entire teaching career having students memorize George Boole’s pets’ names.
We can teach people the skills they need if we allow them to choose what interests them and then teach them to predict, evaluate, diagnose, etc., within their area of interest. Teaching algebra and then hoping those skills will transfer to other areas of life is simply fantasy, a fantasy that makes our kids bored and miserable in school.
The average person never does abstract reasoning.
Um, Roger, have you met people? I’m starting to think you may not have ever met a person. It’s probably because you scared them off when you asked them to recite the state capitols right after you were introduced. Because I promise you, every person does abstract reasoning. Whether you’re explaining directions, making an argument, writing songs, drawing a schematic, describing a setting, or pretty much communicating with anyone, you’re abstracting. Talking is abstracting.
If abstract reasoning was so important,
we could teach courses in that.
We do! It’s called algebra! And geometry!
We need to begin teaching people to reason well enough to make sensible political and life choices. This is a very important idea in a democracy.
OK now I’m convinced Roger is just playing around with his artificial intelligence machine. Because this last line sounds like it was written by a computer algorithm. I figured it out! So it doesn’t pass the Turing test! Either that or it was written by a 6th grader trying to pass his end-of-course Geography essay by following the format that his teacher showed him.
[Thesis] [2-3 sentences] [Something about democracy]
It really was this last paragraph (read: two sentences) that was the impetus for this blog post. I mean, it’s one thing to be completely wrong about pretty much everything and to develop entire theses based on cherry-picked and irrelevant anecdotal data (people not being able to answer your Quadratic Equation question). But it’s another thing to just mail it in. I’m willing to bet I put more thought into the first paragraph of this blog post than Roger did for that whole column. I mean, “this [reason well enough to make sensible life choices] is an important idea in democracy”??? At least end it on something other than every middle school paper I ever wrote.
So, just to recap, Roger can’t find many people that remember the Quadratic Equation, and he knows some mathematicians who don’t totally have their lives together, something about abstract reasoning, something about democracy, therefore algebra as it exists in Roger’s head should be done away with. This is a terrible job of abstract reasoning. So congrats on proving that point?