Friday, May 6, 2016

Civil War

My son Xavier is a dedicated comic book fellow. A sophomore in high school, it has been almost a dozen years of near obsession. But unlike most of his ilk, he is open to either DC or Marvel. He does tend to be more into one or another at any particular time.

Why are we so tribal? In a society that can look down on comics (less and less, though, it seems) I always wondered why pick one and denounce the other? I like Hulk and Batman, deal with it.

Anyhow, this weekend is definitely about Mother's Day Civil War.

Aside: my spouse Karen is kind of anti-Mother's Day. She both worries for people for whom the holiday is painful (of which there are many) and is downright angry that what was originally a day where Ann Reeves Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe (separately) encourage peace work and prayer. After the actual Civil War it was important to them to never have such a rending again.

But we have our own civil war in math teaching. Even called the math wars for extra inflammatory effect. It's not like the US Civil War, with serious different goals setting opponents against each other. Both sides of the math wars know that they are fighting for what's best for students. I don't say this to suggest a CNN-like, two sides to this issue, so let's pretend it's Coke and Pepsi. I am far off to one side of the math wars. But I know that the great majority of people with whom I disagree are people of good intentions. I have serious differences with anyone who fights the math wars with an 'ends justify the means' style, though, and I am naturally suspicious of anyone with financial interests in the war's outcome.

The best paper I know on the subject is from Alan Schoenfeld: The Math Wars. He gives a thorough history, and begins our current conflict around the release of the first and second NCTM Standards. A key-to-me paragraph:
"The Standards, buttressed by NCTM’s call for “mathematics for all” and the equity agenda in Everybody Counts, clearly sat in the education-for- democratic-equality and education-for-social-mobility camps. In contrast, whatever the intention may have been, the reality was that the traditional curriculum was a vehicle for social efficiency and the perpetuation of privilege. Statistically speaking, the rich stayed rich and the poor got disenfranchised. There is a long history of data indicating that race and socioeconomic status correlate with mathematics performance, with drop-out rates, and with economic opportunity (Kozol, 1992; National Action Committee for Minorities in Engineering, 1997; NSF, 2000). Thus the Standards could be seen as a threat to the current social order."
One of my favorite courses in college was on the philosophy of John Dewey. We examined social issues, such as abortion, from the pragmatic viewpoint. This involved looking at what divided people on an issue, and what separated the activists from the majority. It turns out that on most issues the majority is not separated by much. Activists often have no room for compromise, however, because for activists the issue is about their way of life. For example, with abortions, it seems like we could all agree on condom distribution. But the activists will fight over it.

So what separates the activists from the majority in the math wars? I'd love to know what you see from your perspective. My current theory is that it's about threat and equity. On one side they see change as against them or wanting to take something away, and other the other side they see the status quo as oppressive to many.  That so many are fearful of math adds fuel to the fire.

The pragmatist appoach would be to try to get the non-activists together. We are all concerned with student learning, and have a lot to talk about. It always strikes me that anything that is shown to be effective for improving teaching boils down to having teachers talking about some kind of shared experience. This fits with my framework that teaching is local and human. When I hear Lani Horn talk about contextualized discussions of teaching, this is what I think of. When I hear Catherine Lewis talk about lesson study, this is what I think of. When I hear Jim Knight talk about instructional coaching, this is what I think of.

We haven't seen Civil War yet - and we are a strict no spoiler family, anyhow - but when we do, I'm guessing that a lot of the fighting will have been avoidable. Similarly in the math wars, beware of those who love the battle, and look for those who are loving the students.

Save our arguments for which is better, Superman v Batman or Civil War!

No comments:

Post a Comment