Monday, April 20, 2009

A Mathematician's Lament

I just finished reading Paul Lockhart's book A Mathematician's Lament and I'm pretty confused. I both loved and hated the book.

Paul Lockhart seems like he'd be an amazing math teacher. His book The A Mathematician's Lament shows him to be an incredibly motivated teacher of the subject. The book is a prolonged critique of contemporary mathematics education and as such, Lockhart lands a number of serious blows.

Math education, he argues, is currently designed to kill students' love of the subject. It is devoid of the aesthetic beauty that is the essence of math and is instead a pointless series tasks to be memorized. His goal is to elevate mathematical pursuits to the level of an art. Rid the topic of all its pseudo "usefulness" and teach as something to be appreciated on its own terms.

On the whole, I found the book convincing. One point that stuck out especially for me was his call to include the history of math in math courses. He'd also like to see the philosophy of the subject discussed so that students can see the passion that mathematicians have. Doing so would certainly have given someone like me more to work with rather than the memorization and pattern recognition that dominates so much of math education today.

Where he loses me is in his dismissal of all attempts to develop curriculum. He dismisses it and every attempt to do so as "bunk". Education schools are absurd. The only thing that matters to Lockhart is the individual teacher and his efforts to do what's best for students. One part of me wants to believe that this is in fact the case, but this seems misguided at best. This Randian view of the heroic individual standing up against all the world's fools sounds good (I guess), but does not conform to the reality I've encountered in my years of teaching and as an administrator.

Can teachers learn from others? I don't have a sense that Lockhart feels he's learned much from anyone but himself. How is a teacher to ensure that students have some consistent and meaningful expeience over the years? Are they to wander from master to master with no direction? Is there really no responsibility to give students some semblance of a coherent experience?

The heart of the problem seems, to me, at least, to be Lockhart's overweening self-confidence. From his text, Lockhart apparently has all the answers and those who don't agree with him are fools. So while I am sure he's a great teacher, I do wonder if his students come to possess what appears to be his elitist dismissal of "lesser intellects". That has nothing to do, I guess, with math, but it does have everything to do with character.

You can take a look at the original (and shorter) lament here.

No comments: