17 March 2008

Link of the day: Lockhart's Lament

Michael Nielsen posted a link to the wonderful essay "Lockhart's Lament." It was originally written by a mathematician named Paul Lockhart in 2002. He laments the state of K-12 mathematics education in America. I was a bit shocked to realize what a mediocre mathematics education I had, even though I attend some of the top public schools in the country. In retrospect, I realize how rote my math classes were. No wonder I never really liked math as a child. When I went to college, I took physics and my teachers showed me the rich history behind what we were learning, how you could take different approaches to solving the same problem, and how physics was still a growing, changing field. No wonder I became a physicist and not a mathematician.

I feel like even my college math classes were taught in a rather rote fashion. I never really got a feel for how the various facts I learned were inter-related, nor did I understand why these facts were interesting. My analysis teacher mentioned a book called A Radical Approach to Real Analysis by David Bressoud. I wish I had read it; apparently it explains why mathematicians wanted to come up with these obscure concepts like sets and measures.

I really need a good context to understand advanced math. At some point, I just can't handle so much abstraction. I think most people have even less ability to handle abstraction than I do, which probably explains why so many people hate math.

Not that science education is that much better. I remember Bruce Alberts (an author of the famous biochemistry textbook The Cell) saying that he was shocked at how boring his son's high school chemistry textbook was. The only reason that many students learn science and math is because their parents and teachers tell them how important it is. Students probably don't appreciate it until later in life, if they're lucky. I was one of the lucky ones. There are actually a number of prominent physicists working on physics education including Nobel Laureates Leon Lederman, Carl Wieman, and Kenneth Wilson.

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