Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Is math necessary in elementary school?

Our school works awfully hard to keep the students up to “grade-level” in math, and the kids work awfully hard to get there. Not just at our school, of course; schools across the country are measured, in part, by how many of their kids meet benchmarks on standardized math tests each year. The importance of meeting those benchmarks is used to justify behavioral programs like PBIS and the “character education” programs that are designed to keep kids quiet and obedient so teachers can maximize on-task time.

How sure are we that kids benefit from learning math in this way? What would happen if we didn’t introduce math at all until, say, sixth grade? In 1929, a school superintendent named L.P. Benezet suggested trying exactly that. “For some years, I had noted that the effect of the early introduction of arithmetic had been to dull and almost chloroform the child’s reasoning facilities,” he wrote.

In the fall of 1929 I made up my mind to try the experiment of abandoning all formal instruction in arithmetic below the seventh grade and concentrating on teaching the children to read, to reason, and to recite - my new Three R’s. And by reciting I did not mean giving back, verbatim, the words of the teacher or of the textbook. I meant speaking the English language.

You can read more about his experiment here. The upshot:

Benezet showed that kids who received just one year of arithmetic, in sixth grade, performed at least as well on standard calculations and much better on story problems than kids who had received several years of arithmetic training. This was all the more remarkable because of the fact that those who received just one year of training were from the poorest neighborhoods--the neighborhoods that had previously produced the poorest test results.

I don’t vouch for this one study’s methods or conclusions. (Benezet’s paper is here.) But I do wonder how open our current educational establishment would be to Benezet’s hypothesis, no matter how much evidence supported it. (Funny how unconventional ideas simply don’t get studied, and so remain forever “non-evidence-based.”) When we’re choosing between different educational approaches, shouldn’t the burden of proof be on those whose approach is more coercive, more burdensome and time-consuming, and more likely to make the kids dislike the subject matter?

..How can I comment?