To Julia Steiny re Edwatch column: Kids' brains dictate how they learn

January 6, 2004

Dear Ms. Steiny,

This is in response to your latest column called: Kids' brains dictate how they learn.

In a previous email exchange about the teaching methods of Tom Lester you told me that ... "I've learned a lot in the last few weeks." I thought then that you might have a reasonable sense as to what we "mathematically correct purists" wanted. I didn't expect you would agree with me, but I didn't expect the broad brush comment in your column about the ..."vicious e-mails from people screaming that math and feelings did not belong in the same sentence." This was completely un-called for and proves that you are really not an independent voice. You didn't even have the courage to make the same comment in your column as you did in your email with me. With so many scientists, engineers, and practicing mathematicians raising specific and concrete objections to the modern reform methods in math (not just wild and "vicious" comments), don't you think it would prudent to try to really understand their point of view. Your column proves that you really didn't try. Perhaps you just go to your RIDE connections and believe everything they tell you.

Perhaps, however, you think you are doing your own thing somewhere in the middle between two extremes. Thinking that an answer is in the middle of two extremes is a cop-out. You don't have to do your homework and you can pretend to show that you are independent, credible, and a voice of moderation. This is a faulty approach to problem solving.

Although you talk about problem solving, your column is series of vague ramblings about the problem of education and the role of the brain. It makes me feel that you are using hyperbole to bolster your speaking career. I find it coincidental that on Sunday I just finished re-reading Richard Feynman's (Nobel Prize winning physicist) first book where he talks about Cargo Cult Science. (Or, just search for "Cargo Cult Science" on Google.)

This is an excerpt:

"... I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas - he's the controller - and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land. ..."

You really should read the whole commentary, or preferably, the whole book. He was an amazing scientist, mathematician, and all around problem solver. (His informal experiments with ants are amazing.) You will learn what real scientific and mathematical problem solving is all about.

In your column, you talk as if you are the only one who thinks about the process of education and about developing the love of learning. You talk about the "big ah-ha! experience", but there are problems with making this the overriding goal of education. For math, you still have to go from point A (counting numbers) to B (algebra) by 8th or 9th grade. If you can't get to point B, then the chances for a career in math, science or engineering are greatly reduced - no matter how many ah-ha! experiences you have had.

There is also a misconception that this ah-ha! effect can only be found using student-centered groups. The student who gets the ah-ha! (it could be wrong) tries to teach it to the other students in the group. As I have said before: ... Is this supposed to be better than having trained teachers do the job? I have had all of my biggest ah-ha! experiences from direct teaching and from tedious homework where I proved I could do the problem after many pages of calculations. I distinctly remember in Calculus class learning that integrating an equation of a curve gives you the area under the curve. This was amazing to me. I remember where I sat, what the teacher was doing, and how I felt when I proved it to myself. I also remember exactly how I felt when I was directly taught(!) how with just the acceleration of gravity (g=32.174 ft/sec^2) and the basic formula (distance = rate*time), I could answer almost any question about an object - position, speed, and time. Add a little trig and you can answer questions like where and when an arrow will land when shot from a bow from on top of a 100 foot high building at a 45 degree angle with a velocity of 100 ft/sec. No complex rote formulas! Just derived from the acceleration of gravity and the simple DRT equation! Keep in mind, however, that this ah-ha! of mine was followed by a whole lot of (not so ah-ha!) practice that required basic skills like solving quadratic equations.

There are lots of ways to achieve an exciting learning environment. The goal is to do so while you are making verifiable progress towards point B and teaching the kids that learning is much more than just ah-ha! Math is cumulative and requires that schools closely watch each student's progress. Any slip-up along the way will increase the chance for failure.

Perhaps point B (algebra by 8th or 9th grade) is not a goal for you or your friends at RIDE. If so, then you should come right out and tell parents that. You say that the people who favor these reform math methods are not in favor of lower expectations, but all you have to do is look at the problems. Do your homework. Get a copy of the Singapore math books and compare them grade-by-grade with any reform math program of your choice. Follow it through to 7th or 8th grade. Look at exactly what problems each program requires the student to solve.

Modern education is driven by a "progressive" philosophy that has little love for specific standards or goals. Everything has to fit that philosophy: portfolios, full inclusion, child-centered learning, heterogeneous groupings, spiraling, constructivism. This is education driven by ideology, not by scientific study or even pragmatism.

Stephen Hollister

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