Why Johnny Can’t Add Without a Calculator

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June 25 2012 6:00 AM

Why Johnny Can’t Add Without a Calculator

Technology is doing to math education what industrial agriculture did to food: making it efficient, monotonous, and low-quality.

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Though serious empirical research fails to show any beneficial effects of technology, it also doesn’t demonstrate any harm. The emphasis on technology is in part damaging because of its opportunity cost, both in effort on the part of policymakers and in terms of money. It also distracts from the real problem: teachers who don’t understand enough about math or science. This has been a problem for a long time.

A report earlier this year from Michigan State University showed that K through eight teachers with no math specialization (the vast majority—more than 90 percent of K through six teachers and more than two-thirds of sixth- to eighth-grade teachers) got only half the questions right on a base-line test meant to see whether they knew the material they were supposed to be teaching.* The good news is that most teachers are aware of their own limitations: Only about 10 percent of the nonmath specialization K through eight teachers said they were “confident to teach all topics” in math.

Hung-Hsi Wu, a math professor at UC-Berkeley (and another member of Bush’s math panel), has been running three-week classes for elementary and middle school teachers every summer for the last dozen years. His “students” must wrestle with deep mathematical questions that both pertain directly to simple math and are poorly understood by most teachers. Why does (-2)x(-3)=6? The answer isn’t straightforward, and Wu takes several pages to give it. If you don’t understand it, though, you don’t really understand multiplication. But Wu has only been teaching about 25-30 teachers a summer—there is money for new technology but little for comprehensive teacher training. Meanwhile, the new technology makes it easier than ever for teachers to avoid learning their subject. Promethean, the “interactive whiteboard” company, advertises as a selling point the fact that teachers can share lesson plans online. But drawing up a lesson plan is itself educative: A teacher who plans his own lecture is forced toward mastery of the material, but one who downloads a PowerPoint presentation doesn’t have to know anything beyond how to download the presentation. It is a mirage of efficiency: empty calories.

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The real shortfall in math and science education can be solved not by software or gadgets but by better teachers. Programs like Wu’s can make more teachers more like Williams. That’s where efforts should be focused, not on imagined technological solutions, which obscure more than they reveal.

In this, the new Common Core standards for math, which were adopted with lightening speed by 45 states and Washington, D.C., fall short. They fetishize “data analysis” without giving students a sufficient grounding to meaningfully analyze data. Though not as wishy-washy as they might have been, they are of a piece with the runaway adaption of technology: The new is given preference over the rigorous.

Computer technology, while great for many things, is just not much good for teaching, yet. Paradoxically, using technology can inhibit understanding how it works. If you learn how to multiply 37 by 41 using a calculator, you only understand the black box. You’ll never learn how to build a better calculator that way. Maybe one day software will be smart enough to be useful, but that day won’t be any time soon, for two reasons. The first is that education, especially of children, is as much an emotional process as an imparting of knowledge—there is no technological substitute for a teacher who cares. The second is that education is poorly structured. Technology is bad at dealing with poorly structured concepts. One question leads to another leads to another, and the rigid structure of computer software has no way of dealing with this. Software is especially bad for smart kids, who are held back by its inflexibility.

John Dewey, the father of American education reform, defined miseducative experiences as those that have “the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience.” “Growth,” he wrote, “depends upon the presence of difficulty to be overcome by the exercise of intelligence.” The widespread use of computer technology is inimical to the exercise of intelligence. I fear this is no more than shouting into the wind, but resist it while you can, because once it gets locked in—as our food system is, to monocultures and antibiotics in factory farms—it will be even tougher to get away from.

Also in Slate’s special issue on science education: Fred Kaplan explains why another “Sputnik moment” would be impossible; Philip Plait explains why he became the “Bad Astronomer”; Paul Plotz describes how almost blowing up his parents’ basement made him a scientist; Tom Kalil says that the Obama administration is using the Make movement to encourage science education; and Dana Goldstein explains why you should make your daughter play video games. Also, share your ideas for fixing science education in the Hive. This article arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.

Correction, June 29, 2012: This article originally misidentified the Education Development Center as the Educational Development Center.

Correction, June 25, 2012: This article originally misidentified the university that carried out a study of teachers’ knowledge of math. It was Michigan State University, not the University of Michigan. (Return to corrected sentence.)

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