Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Professor Morris Kline revisited

A mathematics lecture, apparently about linear...Image via WikipediaAs I was researching material to form the ideology of Real World Math, I tried to find sources that would support the best methods of math instruction. There exists a great number of studies that present the failures of math education, but a disproportionate amount that provide the answers.  One only needs to visit their library to find that the section on mathematics takes up the least shelf space.  And so it happened that I was in a university library that I found a publication of Professor Morris Kline's Why Johnny Can't Add, literally gathering dust.  Although it was written several decades earlier, I had found an influential voice in my view on mathematics.

Kline was professor of mathematics at NYU, and from the 1950's-70's he was a rebellious voice in higher education.  He expressed strong beliefs that the math curricula was misguided and ineffectual, taking particular aim at the New Math of his time.  What I found so striking about his words was that his criticisms seemed just as relevant today as they did half a century ago. There are many of his views I could share with you but for this post I will select one.

Professor Kline believed that perhaps the greatest failing in math education occurred when it was divorced from the physical sciences.  The date of this event may be hard to determine, but it probably occurred when a publisher created a textbook entitled Algebra and another Chemistry.  He observed that many of the great mathematical minds of history were individuals who studied science; Descartes, Newton, and Gauss, to name a few.  Throughout history, mathematics was the means in which scientific observations and deductions were made, but somewhere along the way formal education separated them into distinct subjects of study.  Mathematics became a separate field of inquiry.

Kline felt that the failure of math education was not the fault of the student but of the material they were learning.  Without science, or a connection to the physical world, math had lost its purpose.  Learning mathematics for the "beauty of math" or the goal of learning more purposeless material would not benefit the majority of students.

What should we teach? We want material that will provide motivation, sustain the interest of the student, exhibit the methods of the operation peculiar to mathematics, and demonstrate the chief values of mathematics. I believe that the answer is to tie mathematics closely to the study of the physical world. I do not mean that mathematics should be buried in some corner of a physical science course but rather that we should motivate interpret, and apply mathematics through fundamental physical problems and of course include wherever possible the broader implications, largely cultural, of what mathematics has accomplished. Mathematics derives from the study of nature and is valuable mainly because of what it returns to nature. - Kline 1955

If you are familiar with my site, then you can see how I took Professor Kline's words to heart.  I have tried make connections from math to the physical world so that students can see how concepts are applied.  Many of RWM's activities are suggested as cross-curricular content for science; perhaps there should be more.  What I would suggest to you is that you find a way to reunite the disciplines this year in some way.  Talk to your fellow teachers and try to make correlations in your instruction.  Show the students how ideas and knowledge are related so that they can realize their learning has purpose.

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1 comment:

ClimeGuy said...

Wow! Morris Kline. Read his "why Johnny can't add" when it first came out. He was rebelling against the "new math" that was in vogue at the time. Unfortunately when you let the math professors in charge of curriculum they can come up with some interesting, but inappropriate stuff for kids. I'm sure Morris would be pleased with your work!