Normally I pass on the murky political waters my profession dips into, but Scott McLeod sent me a link I couldn’t resist discussing because it regards historical mathematics.
First, the original source of confusion:
A group of sixth- and seventh-graders still crack open their textbooks and practice regular math skills most days. But once a week, they turn their math attention to history, culture and places far from Somis.
Teacher Jill Brody’s class started learning about Mayan math in September, part of the school’s efforts to incorporate “ethno-mathematics” into some of its classes.
It is clear to me as a teacher that this is referring to an enrichment activity, and not some sort of overarching system (like New Math or Reform Math). Again from the article:
The school isn’t replacing regular math classes, just adding the ethno-mathematics lessons, she said.
I am also guessing the classroom did not study only Mayan numerals (it’d be hard to fill even a quarter) but the newspaper gave the impression it was the only area being studied.
Otherwise the only thing that bothers me is designating math history lessons under the term “ethno-mathematics” — I find the claim dubious that one part of math history is different from another, so I’d prefer the umbrella term.
Now, the reaction:
Today’s stupid education fad of the day?
“Mayan Math.” I kid you not . . .
This is creepily similar to the idiotic “lattice multiplication” lessons in Everyday Math that justify using incoherent, inefficient methods of multiplying because that’s the way the ancient Egyptians did it.
1. The newspaper never called it “Mayan Math” in the same category as “New Math”. It simply is a type of lesson.
2. Teaching mathematics history is not a “fad” and has been present even in highly traditional classrooms for a while. I have Mayan worksheets floating around from the 1950s.
3. Lattice multiplication doesn’t come from the Egyptians (either the Indians or Arabs, depending on your reference). The blog 360 has written up the subject in detail. One of the authors of the blog has also defended the use of the practice. What I should emphasize is that lattice multiplication intrinsically has nothing to do with Reform anything; it’s another algorithm just like the “traditional” one, with the disadvantage that it takes longer to set up and the advantage that it is easier to spot mistakes. The fact that Everyday Math does include the algorithm is unrelated to the overall philosophy, other than a willingness to change the status quo.
I do have sympathy for those suspicious of “discovery” curriculum, in that it can go very badly with an unskilled teacher, but that doesn’t mean essentially unrelated material should be pulled into the same critiques.