Why Johnny Doesn't Get It

By Timothy M. Schwalm, Sr. | The Christian Science Monitor, August 28, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Why Johnny Doesn't Get It


Timothy M. Schwalm, Sr., The Christian Science Monitor


My wife and I home school our 15-year-old son, William. Each night after work, I take my "Dad" hat off and put on my "math teacher" hat.

When I first began teaching William algebra, I used traditional textbooks and the traditional flash-card approach to instruction. After extensive explanation, repetitive problem-solving, and occasional frustration, he was largely able to master the straightforward equations and formulas that he had been drilled on.

At a certain point in the learning process, I presented William with a series of problems that could be solved easily through the formulas he had learned, but that also required an understanding of how to apply the formulas. To my dismay, he was wholly stumped. Each day at work, I witness first-hand the critical importance of the education and training students need to succeed and prosper in an increasingly specialized labor market. But it took this revealing experience with my son to realize that the kind of instruction we give our kids determines their ability to sink or swim. The experience taught me that the old methods of math and science instruction are severely antiquated, and we must reform our approach or risk falling increasingly further behind. The US continues to shift to an information-based economy that requires more use of everyday mathematics and more sophisticated applications of mathematical concepts. Developing math skills that would suffice for a cashier was a valid goal in the 1950s, but today's students will live and work in a world steeped in technology and dependent on advanced problem solving. As such, the old way of teaching by rote memorization and drilling is increasingly incompatible with information age demands. The recent Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) found that mathematics instruction in Japan, where students consistently score higher than American students, is based on understanding and applying mathematical concepts rather than on the routine mastery of facts. According to the TIMMS survey, 71 percent of Japanese mathematics teachers said that the goal of their lessons is to develop mathematical thinking - compared with only 24 percent of US teachers. Clearly, parents, teachers, students, businesses, and all those impacted by poor performance in math and science must find new approaches to teaching and learning.

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