Saturday, February 18, 2006

Celebrating Ignorance

It all started with a young woman who dropped out of school. Supposedly she left because she failed algebra six times and was frustrated. This could be seen as evidence that our math education system is broken and never mind the fact that she was absent for two thirds of the classes during the sixth semester.

Well, we all know that the way we teach math in our schools leaves much to be desired. Even people like me who had an extremely successful experience agree on that. We can argue about why this is and what needs to be done and whether things are getting better all day long. As an aside, I think the main problem is elementary school teachers. If you have ever taught a "math for primary educators" class, you know that the people going to teach your first graders are, by and large, both unproficient in and hostile to mathematics. Nothing like your teacher hating math and being no good at it to inculate a love of the subject in students. Instituting math education by math specialists with degrees in math at all levels (and also paying them more) would probably go a great distance in improving math education in this country.

But then...

Richard Cohen, a Washington Post editorial writer, picked up on the story of this poor truant girl and framed the issue in a different way, claiming that mathematics is useless and should not be a requirement for a high school degree:

Here's the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know -- never mind want to know -- how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later -- or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note -- or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.

Gabriela, sooner or later someone's going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not. The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence. I can cite Shelly, whose last name will not be mentioned, who aced algebra but when called to the board in geography class, located the Sahara Desert right where the Gobi usually is. She was off by a whole continent.

Wow. There are so many downright stupid things written here that I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps I was learning the wrong things when I was wasting my time learning how to actually write proofs, in the mathematical sense, but Cohen's friend Shelly is just an anecdote. Not only is it not a "proof" of anything, but it is not even compelling evidence in support of his assertion. Learning mathematics, of which algebra is one part, does impart analytical skills. A different sort of analytical skills than learning to write, but valuable ones nonetheless. Evidence of this, for instance, is that of all undergraduate majors, mathematics majors score the highest on average on the law school proficiency examinations. Of course, law schools also require a writing sample, but clearly they value both types of reasoning ability and even probably see them as correlated.

But learning mathematics also helps you get by in this world in tangible ways. Knowing mathematics, even at the level of high school algebra, allows you to figure out your taxes (without using the tables, even), compute a tip, evaluate a credit card or loan offer, compute the tax break you would get from a home loan, and figure out how much you should be saving for retirement, just off the top of my head. Having a feel for mathematics allow you to evaluate risk, which is something we all need to be able to do and something that a lot of people seem to be terrible at. Understanding mathematics at a higher level is a prerequisite for programming a computer, working with money in any meaningful way, becoming a scientist, or practicing medicine. All enterprises that Cohen clearly values less than writing op-ed pieces.

Well, whatever. This wouldn't bother me so much if it weren't such a prevelant sentiment among people who otherwise claim to be educated. Would they be so proud of admitting that they didn't know how to read? Why are innumerate people so proud of their ignorance?

As always on these subjects, PZ Myers makes much the same points more eloquently than I do.


At 4:04 PM, February 18, 2006, Anonymous maha said...

Why are innumerate people so proud of their ignorance?

Exactly what part of "I have a learning disability" do you not get? Where is there "pride" in that? Perhaps you need remedial reading lessons. Jeanne and I both expressed regret at being unable to learn things other people do learn. But that's how it is.

There's many types of ignorance, son. Look to your own.

At 8:16 PM, February 18, 2006, Blogger Jay said...

Granted, you don't seem to be as proud of it as Jeanne (who essentially said that she never felt a desire to know algebra) or Cohen, but so freely admitting innumeracy is a sort of pride in it. I guarantee that you wouldn't be so forthcoming if you had never learned to read.

At 11:00 PM, March 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article seems to suit your site theme.

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Children with ADHD

There is a perplexing state of affairs in today's society, there lies a strong correlation between the affluence of a society and the amount of disease that is present. There is also another correlation that troubles many a people and that is with affluence comes disease at an Earlier age.

Working with children and the parents of these children I often get asked the question, 'Why are Children with ADHD on the increase?'

The answer as you shall find is one that is both interesting and challenging.

Children of today are really no more different from the children of yesterday in terms of genetic makeup. However, if you examine the issue more closely you will tend to find that many children today have been given labels. For example, 'Oh, those are children with ADHD' or 'Those are the children who can't sit still.' Or 'That is the kid that always gets into trouble.'

These labels are not only destructive but also become a self fulfilling prophecy as it is repeated adnauseum.

So as a 21st century parent or a parent with a child with ADHD or a parent with children with ADHD, what knowledge framework do you need to equip yourself with to ensure your children live out their true potential?

Here is a quick reference list for thinking about ADHD
� ADHD is a source of great frustration because it is misunderstood
� ADHD medications are a great short term time buying device and should be avoided long term
� The above point goes for any sort of drug consumption. Think about it for a minute. Unless you have a biochemical deficiency in your body like Type 1 diabetes where your body fails to produce enough insulin or any at all, why would you take an external drug? A body that is in balance is totally healthy. It is only when the body is out of balance that dis-ease symptoms start to creep up.
� ADHD is a biochemical imbalance of the mind and body.
� The Head of Psychiatry in Harvard states that drugs for ADHD simply mask the effects of ADHD. It does not cure ADHD. This is an important point because a cure implies never to have to take the medication. This means that once you start on medication you will have to be on it for the rest of your life i.e. you have medically acquired a dependency for a biochemical imbalance. That is like stuffing all your rubbish (problematic behaviors) into a closet (medication) where no one can see it. But if you continue to stuff more rubbish into that closet, one day you will not have enough space and need to do one of two things. You either empty the rubbish (the natural conclusion) or you get a bigger closet (i.e. change to stronger medication to control the symptoms). The choice is obvious but sometimes when you don't have the necessary tools to deal with ADHD you tend to think the bigger closet is the only option.
� ADHD children are super sensitive to the emotions around them. Often they pick up emotional cues from their parents without realizing. Many parents come home frustrated or annoyed from work, the child with ADHD picks this up and starts to 'cause trouble' by becoming restless. Parents frustration increase because they just want some peace and quiet. They get angry which in turn is picked up by the child who then intensifies their activity. Things get way out of hand and some sort of punishment is handed down to the child who has no idea what just happened. The cycle repeats itself every so often.
� Our brains are wired emotionally. Positive praise is interpreted as an analytical/thinking exercise. Negative criticism including scolding, name calling, physical punishment all go directly to the emotional brain of children with ADHD. This means in order to ensure you get your message across in the most optimal way, you need to learn how to communicate with your ADHD children the way they like to be communicated with.
� Every negative comment requires 16 positive comments to neutralize the emotion. Save yourself the frustration and agitation by practicing positive communication.

The list is by no means complete. In dealing with children with ADHD there are a certain set of behavioural principles to follow. I will detail these steps in the coming weeks. I'll also build on the list as you continue to learn about what appears to be a mystical disorder known as 'Children with ADHD'


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