College Math Teaching

May 16, 2011

Teaching Mathematics in this era: The Helicopter Parent

Filed under: calculus, mathematical ability, mathematics education, student learning — collegemathteaching @ 12:45 pm

Mathematics Education
I was somewhat taken aback at this Daily Kos diary:

I was asked how my daughter is doing. She has 16 credits to go to her bachelor’s degree but it might as well be 2 more years. She’s up in Michigan licking her math wounds. She’s trying to gear up for what she has to do to complete her degree. She had her math ass kicked this last term – again. My daughter, the high school mathlete can’t hack collegiate Calculus II, Differential Equations or Multivariate Analysis (aka Calculus III on steroids) well enough to get a 73.5% or higher which is a requirement for her Physics B.A. degree. She can get 70% and 71%, but not the 73.5% deemed necessary. I mentioned that our current strategy is to find an instructor who’s actually teaching these classes in another school in town (we have 6 major colleges and universities in town to choose from) and transfer in the credits so she can get her degree.

Well, that statement set the mouse amongst the pooties.

How could I say that! Was I saying the instructors weren’t teaching! (That would be sacrilegious in this group.) What’s strange is that I wasn’t criticizing Chibi’s elementary, middle or high school math experience. Her high school math classes were the last classes where actual math instruction occurred. We complain about education and math education in particular, but Chibi got decent math education through to her Senior year in high school. She did well there. It’s university math outside the physics department that’s giving her trouble. She aces all her Physics & Calculus classes that require her to calculate vortexes, how moisture flows through tail pipes, predicting the sizes of hail stones or whatever; these aren’t difficult for her. It’s the math for math’s sake classes, where there’s a bare equation with no real world application or context for solving it that kicks her butt. The lack of practical application simply stymies her mathlete abilities. […]

One thing is for certain, as long as we continue to teach collegiate math using 100 year old methods, the U.S. math competencies will remain where they are.

So do you get this: his daughter did well in high school mathematics but didn’t do well in college mathematics, so it must be the fault of the mathematics professors….ALL of them. Then he blames our position with respect to the world in mathematics education on the university mathematics faculty.

Let’s examine this for a bit:

The disappointing performance of U.S. teenagers in math and science on an international exam, in scores released yesterday, has sparked calls for improvement in public schools to help the country keep pace in the global economy.

The scores from the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment showed that U.S. 15-year-olds trailed their peers from many industrialized countries. The average science score of U.S. students lagged behind those in 16 of 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that represents the world’s richest countries. The U.S. students were further behind in math, trailing counterparts in 23 countries.

The gap is already there by the time the kids are 15 years old….and exactly how is this the fault of university mathematics faculty?
Remember, his complaint was that his daughter got good grades in high school mathematics but didn’t get them in college mathematics…in several classes. What was the constant there? It was his daughter, of course.

In short, this person makes a sweeping claim based on the lack of success of HIS KID. THIS is part of the “helicopter parent” era.

I’ll add a few thoughts from my experience: in high school, I made A’s in foreign language but had to work to earn a C in my junior level class in college. The professor was excellent; the material was just difficult for me. Even in mathematics: I did well in analysis, algebra, topology and ok in complex variables. I struggled badly in numerical analysis. Yes, my numerical analysis professor…was quite good and I said so on the student evaluations. I just didn’t do well IN THAT CLASS. It just took a long time for that material to make sense to me.

I am not saying that there aren’t some horrible mathematics instructors: there are. That is unfortunate, but there are there. But that is not an excuse for repeated poor performance in classes.

Upshot: there are some parents who will never admit that their student really isn’t that good; the fault will always lie elsewhere.

Note: I am NOT saying that not doing well in mathematics makes anyone a failure. For example: my step son took the multi-year path to get through the required calculus sequence required by his computer science program. He got his degree and is now earning (at least) triple my salary in the database industry.

The founder of Jetblue Airlines didn’t do well in mathematics.

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