Monday, January 30, 2012

The education system is broken, and here's how to fix it

As most of you know, I'm a high school student (freshman).

This year I complete my 10th year of being a full-time student (including kindergarten), and, I must say, I am sick and tired of the way people are "educated".

Take your typical mathematics class (my favorite subject inside and out of school) in the United States.

The teacher starts by checking the night before's homework (most of the time checking if people have done it), asks people if they're having any difficulties with it. If so, then he/she does that problem on the board and explains it. Then, introduces a topic like "rational functions", "imaginary numbers" or "the Pythagorean theorem", from the "textbook" which has a few examples in it.

The lesson usually consists of beginning by showing the formula for that chapter or section or unit or whatever the heck its called, and then having the students see a simple exercise in which they plugin a few numbers into this magical formula which then spits out the answers. 

Then, the teacher then picks a more "difficult" problem, in which the same formula is used, but, its a "real world application", in which students find things like the distance between two campsites or figure out how long it will take Bob to run around the track if he's going at so and so miles per hour.

And, the homework is handed out, which are exactly the same problems, just redressed with different numbers, and the cycle begins once again the next day.

So, what do people learn at the end of the chapter?

Absolutely Nothing.

Here's the problem.

First of all, the students are never given the idea about what how the formula actually came into existence. 

Basically, the current system dictates that it doesn't really matter where it came from, for all your concerns, someone just thought about it one fine day and wrote it down, you have a test coming up next week, so you'd better stop getting distracted and get the formula memorized or you'll fail.

So, this causes students to go about the "textbook" skipping everything but the formulas, and then memorizing those. Then, when the test comes along, those who had time to memorize their formulas do excellent, and those that had something going on get low grades.

Then, as soon as they're done with the test, they put in all of their efforts into memorizing the next set of formulas and have nothing left from the last set that they memorized except "I love *whatever the topic is*, I got a 96% on that test".

And, the "textbooks" have "real world applications", which involve doing things that people would never even DREAM about doing (there are an incredible amount of problems about outdoor activities), because they're just plain stupid (do you measure the distance between the department stores in your town with the Law of Cosines?). 

So, this causes students to think "when am I going to use any of this stuff anyway?", which is something I would think about very often if I hadn't taken the time to read a bit more about math.

These facts need to change. 

First of all, you might have noticed that I keep saying textbooks in quotes, and there's a reason for that. 

The textbooks suck.

Pick up any standard, run-of-the-mill textbook about "Algebra II" or "Precalculus", and you'll see a very similar picture.

The chapter begins, promising incredibly lackluster "real world applications". Then, goes into the first section, in which it tells you the formula in a conveniently highlighted box, which basically tells students not to read the rest of the passage, since its only there to make the book fatter anyway. 

Then, there are pictures of people doing sports and things considered "fun", and are related to the subject of matter extremely lightly, but, the publishers and authors assume that if you put in some pictures about sports, the students will "learn better" (a.k.a memorize formulas in a shorter amount of time). 

Then, there are a few examples in which the formula is used (again, no explanation of where it came from, or why it is needed), and ends with a horribly stale application, and then commences onto the exercises.

There are 110+ exercises in each section, about five of which are actually worth doing, since all the others are just slight deviations from the examples. 

At the end of it all, you haven't solved a single problem by thinking it out yourself, all you've done is plug in some numbers.

The biggest thing that these textbooks and curriculum lack are real problems. 

Right now, almost every high paying job (with a good success rate; e.g. you cannot count football players, since less than 1% of them make a high pay) in the world deals with solving problems.

We solve general problems like "An easy way to share pictures is needed; we have to build it", but, we also solve problems like "The search results are taking way to long, is there some kind of way we can speed them up?"

Obviously, these are difficult problems, and there's no general "formula" to plug things into that'll spit out the right solution. 

We have to invent things as we go along.

When a patient comes to you, you don't have a set method of identifying "he has so-so, and he needs this to fix him up". 

First of all, he gives you about 98 different things that are happening to him, and from there, you need to understand which ones are important and then find out what's wrong with him (assuming that the symptoms you said are important really are important)

You have to take a small amount of information given to you, and synthesize a solution.


You have a set number of rules you have to follow, and some conditions given with some more information, you need to derive a conclusion. 

All of these things are what the current curricula lack.

There are no difficult problems that one must think about in order to find the solution, they are just things that as long as you don't make any mistakes, you'll be perfectly fine.

This makes students entirely neglect the point of mathematics!

The point of math isn't to find out the probability of Jimmy wearing red socks on Tuesday, or to memorize the Rational Root Theorem word for word, because you probably will never use those things in your entire life, but, the point of math is to show how clear headed thinking and problem-solving are executed.

Given a difficult problem, one must invent, synthesize and derive in order to find a solution, which may involve failed approaches, but, the result is much more lasting.

And, this cut-and-dried approach to math is useless, because as soon as you take advanced math courses in college, you'll realize that the "proof" sections in the book actually mattered!

Okay, so, I've stated all the problems, now, how about a solution?

First and foremost, get rid of the "Algebra II" and "Geometry" subdivision junk that's going on, its entirely useless. 

Math wasn't invented like that, and therefore should not be taught that way. 

Mathematics isn't a bunch of blocks of knowledge that you use parts of to do exercises, its this whole continuum where a problem, if not solvable by the methods in one field, can be moved to another.

Second, the textbooks are horrible and need to be rewritten.

To do that, we begin by placing a limit on the size of the textbook to 300 pages or so (sounds a bit Legalist, no?)

Then, we take out the horribly expensive and useless color pages (except for 4th grade and below; I really liked the colors then, because the textbook didn't really mean much), and replace them with black and white.

Since its all black and white, we'd might as well throw out the pictures of people surfing as well, since people draw mustaches on those anyway.  

Then, we rid ourselves of the idea of sections, since they get in the way anyway and constrict our overall "view" of mathematics too much.

Now, each chapter deals with each topic in a very conversational way, where the motivation of each step (all proofs included) is shown, and how one step leads to the next is very clearly shown.

There is one textbook that is currently in use that I would like to point out that does this incredibly well, which is Linear Algebra and Its Applications by Gilbert Strang. 
Matrix multiplication isn't just thrown out as a formula, but, its developed conversationally from the idea of linear systems (certain higher level textbooks do much better in this regard). 

And, the topics within a chapter are connected, one cannot just jump, everything is continuous. 

However, chapters can jump around math as much one would like, from Number Theory to Geometry and then to Combinatorics. 

All the exercises need to replaced with a few, well-selected sets of problems which not only extend the material, but, provide new insight as to how to take a simple idea and use it on a complex problem (Pigeonhole principle-esque stuff). 

Then, the section of textbooks would be quite solid.

Teachers need to be retrained, and paid a heck of a lot more than right now (think six figures), to make it a much more competitive field. Teaching needs to based around problems, starting lessons with problems, and then allowing the students to have a go at the problem, giving hints in between to lead them closer and closer to the solution. 

If we are able to make a large portion of these changes, we would be far better off than right now in terms of what students can take away from mathematics classes, regardless of what they study in the future.

That's my idea of how this would work, and I would love to hear yours, so, please drop it in the comment section below. 

If you liked this post, please tell me about it, so I'm encouraged to write more, and please follow (there's a button at the top right). 

Questions, comments, etc. all welcome!


  1. Very insightful, especially your commentary on the quality and importance of math problems. I agree on almost all terms, except text books
    I teach at a school where, like you imply, /students/ are the ones doing the math, not the teachers. In my mind, there is no reason to have a text book at all except to reference what was learned in the past. What good is /showing/ a derivation?
    My class has no text book; instead, each students keeps a "math journal" where all their personally derived formulae, definitions, and other important information are saved for later reference.
    If the teachers' job is to ask good questions and provide guidance for the student and the student's job is to think, where does a textbook fit in?
    Also, what about the clever dolphins? ;)

    1. But, sometimes, students have to learn things quickly in order to apply them somewhere else, for example, in engineering schools, so, for that reason, textbooks are important.

      Please follow the blog if you liked this! (its at the top right)

  2. I was just realizing in a conversiontion with a junior developer that the entire subject of history and social studies neglected the history of science and math with a few small exceptions, to our collective diminution. The story of the evolution of mathematics and the refinment of science over the last millennium is so intimately bound up with our advancement of civilization that they are truly inseparable. I recall reading the "Asimov on _____" set of books where he develops not only the current understanding of a matter, but the history of people and the theories which were discarded along the way and why and how these theories fell (often to more than a bit of drama!). This narrative breathed tremendous life into the understanding of the ideas. Lewis Carol takes a different approach, rendering the struggles of understanding a problem into a fictional narrative, but the effect is similar. I wonder if this whole problem is really just a symptom of a larger problem of a sort of over-eager desire to classify, distinguish and dichotomize the world into separate pieces which we then try to treat independently.

    1. Yes, I have noticed that as well.

      There are some books that do an excellent job of this, but, these are never covered in the common curriculum, sadly.

      Thanks for the feedback!

      Follow if you liked it!

  3. I was directed to your post by another Blogger that I follow (Higher Ed) as an example of what we need to look at when it comes to diagnosing how we do learning. I think you've pretty much nailed it. Math is the one subject that I believe needs special attention because derivative thinking is not easily re-constituted into the formatting methods employed by textbook developers. This is not to say that all math is derivative, but when it eventually becomes so, you quickly realize that 'the problem' is less about 'real world' and more about 'new world...if I can find a solution.'
    I took up blogging recently as I sense there is an underground movement afoot from people like yourself who are fed up being spoon fed something you know to be of little value. Glad you laid out what you think are the starting points for reform. I hope that as you find more sustainable solutions you continue to post your findings.

    1. Thansk a ton for the feedback!

      Not only math, but, this is also to some extent, present in the physical sciences, such as chemistry where students don't really understand what a covalent bond *means*, but, they can put together lewis structures.

  4. Replies
    1. Can you please not spam my blog?

      It takes a lot of work to set up a community, write articles and moderate comments, and I assure you that I'm not about to let people like you come in and ruin it for everyone else.


  5. NICE BLOG!!! Education enrich a person with wisdom and knowledge.Education in India should need some sort of reforms to attain good knowledge in students in a better and simple way. Thanks for sharing a fabulous information.
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