Yesterday, Seth Godin posted Good at math on his blog. There was a lot that I agree with in this short piece. For example, the second paragraph begins with:
I'll grant you that it might take a gift to be great at math, but if you're not good at math, it's not because of your genes.
Unfortunately, this is followed up with:
It's because you haven't had a math teacher who cared enough to teach you math. They've probably been teaching you to memorize formulas and to be good at math tests instead.
I am not surprised that Godin employs the "blame the teacher" canard. Our nation loves finding easy explanations to complex problems and, therefore, falls back on the "bad teacher" narrative on a regular basis whenever it comes to problems in education. However, this explanation of why you aren't good at math misses an important point. A point Richard Skemp makes in Relational Understanding and Instrumental Understanding.
I used to think that maths teachers were all teaching the same subject, some doing it better than others.
I now believe that there are two effectively different subjects being taught under the same name, ‘mathematics’.
Skemp's realization can help us to make an important distinction. It isn't that your teachers didn't care. In fact, probably the problem was that your teachers, like the rest of our society, cared too much - cared too much about you being good at math tests. And this is the crux of the problem (and another place where Godin and I can find some agreement). In the third paragraph, he writes:
Being good at standardized math tests is useless. These tests measure nothing of real value, and they amplify a broken system.
So here is what I wish Godin had written in those two paragraphs (my edits in blue):
I'll grant you that it might take a gift to be great at math, but if you're not good at math, it's no because of your genes. It's because of your experiences. You did not encounter in math class the experiences you needed to be good at math. What you received, because of our broken system's obsession with test scores, were experiences meant to prepare you to be successful in schoolmath - memorization of facts and formulas that can be easily assessed using standardized-tests.
What can we do about this disconnect between math and schoolmath? We can begin by recognizing that being good at standardized math tests is useless. These tests measure nothing of real value, and they amplify a broken system.
What do you wish Godin had written? Because until we can understand the problem, to be able to put it into our own words, it will be nearly impossible to solve it.