Wente Watch

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Math Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Wente

A common meme in conservative circles is to crow that educational standards are too low, and schools spend too much time teaching students to think and not enough on rote learning and obeying orders. Such is today's Wente.

To answer that, here is a simple problem:

A carpenter has a board 200 inches long and 12 inches wide. He makes 4 identical shelves and still has a piece of board 36 inches long left over. How long is each shelf?

This is really the essence of mathematics: using basic tools - division and subtraction, in this case - to solve real-world problems.

Notice here that memorizing the times tables and how to long-divide and add and subtract with pencil and paper is not enough. If you do not understand the principles of what to do, the calculator will not help you. Neither will rote learning. The actual calculations are not the hard part - figuring out what the calculation should be is.

Any Grade 7 student should be able to solve this problem, but I'd guess even many adults in North America cannot. This is a real issue, but getting into silly ideological wars over whether rote learning or calculators should be used will not solve it.

A more likely explanation for Asian schools' better performance in mathematics is cultural. In Asia, the mathematician or scientist is admired and honoured. In North America, he (and it is, overwhelmingly, "he") is looked down upon, dismissed as a "nerd", regarded as a social misfit with ugly glasses and buck teeth.

Wente dates 1989 as the beginning of the decline in American math standards, but Asian schools were outperforming Americans even before that. Usually conservatives love to have culture explain everything, but maybe that only applies to the culture of dark-skinned peoples.


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