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No. 2769:
Math Wars

Today, math wars. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The right way to teach math has been contentious for over one-hundred years. From the anti-math movement of the early twentieth century to the overly abstract new math of the sixties and seventies, educators haven't been shy about speaking up. At the heart of the issue: should kindergarten through twelfth grade students be drilled on fundamentals, or should they be nurtured into discovering mathematical principles on their own?


A recent incarnation of the debate began in 1989 with a set of standards issued by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The standards favored the nurturing model and catalyzed a growing math reform movement. New, less rigid curricula were widely adopted. One popular textbook read "the authors do not believe it is worth the time and effort to develop 'paper-and-pencil [methods for all] division problems' The math payoff is not worth the cost, particularly because [division can be done] 'with a calculator.'" Not surprisingly, sacrificing paper-and-pencil to calculators — among other changes — drew sharp criticism from traditionalists. The heated exchanges between traditionalists and the reform movement were dubbed the math wars.

Over time the Teachers Council did soften its stance. In the year 2000 it released a new set of principles and standards that were generally seen as more balanced. Even so, the war waged on. In 2005, a concerned parent with a degree in math weighed in. "I had no idea that our children were being deprived of a math education," he wrote. "[And it's] thanks in no small part to a dubious education theory, watered down standards, and a well meaning but intellectually bankrupt federally subsidized program of math illiteracy." Strong words, but he wasn't alone, and many mathematicians, engineers, and scientists stepped forward to voice similar concerns.

Disturbed by the state of affairs, in 2006 President George W. Bush signed an executive order creating the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. The Panel's two year charge was to prepare a report recommending ways to "help keep America competitive 'by foster[ing] improved performance in mathematics.'" To achieve this goal, the Panel chose to address the war waging between traditionalists and reformers. And the Panel's recommendation? "research [on math teaching] does not support the exclusive use of either approach." The underlying message in the report was clear: stop bickering. Both sides have valid points. Concentrate on ways for the two approaches to harmoniously reinforce one another.

National Mathematics Advisory Panel document
President Bush signature

Of course, the report didn't bring the debate to a grinding halt. But it did suggest a mathematical solution to the question of how best to teach math: take the average.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

For related episodes, see NO MATH and NEW MATH

B. Garelick. An A-Maze-ing Approach to Math. From the Educationnext website: Accessed January 31, 2012. 

Math Wars. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed January 31, 2012.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed January 31, 2012. 

All pictures are from U.S. Department of Education websites.

This episode was first aired on February 2, 2012