Friday, August 23, 2013

Math Scores Down. Is Teaching 'People Skills' to Blame?

The Washington Post reports that in one of the nation's best school systems (Montgomery County, Maryland) test scores in math are at their lowest point in a long time. And it appears that this is a nationwide trend

And of course the question is, Why?

Poor teaching? Poor discipline and study skills at home?

I wonder if this fall in numeracy isn't related to the teaching of soft skills in schools. Soft skills (or people skills) teach children about relationships, getting along, negotiation, conflict resolution, etc. all of which are worthy lessons for maintaining harmonious citizenry in our increasingly crowded and interconnected world.

But teaching and cultivating these interpersonal skills may undermine mathematics concepts and teaching. Math is a 'hard' discipline. By hard I don't mean 'difficult' but rather unforgiving. In mathematics, there is very often a right answer and none other. No flexibility is accounted for. The rules are hard and fast in contrast to the lessons we teach our children regarding navigating the unpredictable ways in which we relate to one another.

Another potential reason  for the noticeable drop in math scores also relates to soft-skills teaching and that is that there seems to be a "math gene" that science has identified in humans. This gene (as far as I have read) enables its bearer to better understand values, ratios and other concepts that seem to elude (despite formal training) those who lack the gene.

I'm not sure about all that but if it's true it might explain at least partially the drop in scores. That is, that the numerate (those with the math gene) tend to be more socially awkward than those who excel in the people (or soft) skills. Therefore the latter tend to marry earlier (or at all) and have children earlier and have larger families, thus passing on this mysterious "math gene." The geeks on the other hand, are more studious and delay marriage and childbearing (either by choice or by lack of opportunities, skills and/or abilities) and therefore produce fewer children with this gene.

Popular culture is also (and as usual) a willing participant. We've seen for years in movies, television, music and other entertainment media that geeky math geniuses are undesirable companions. Children who might otherwise excel in reason and logic (both core to mathematical achievement) are excluded from many peer groups enough to modify behavior so that some of them conform by feigning ignorance and distaste for numeracy.

And voila, in 10-15 years you've got a cohort of school-aged children with a large proportion of innumerate who tend to drive down test scores in math.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Top Draft Picks at Druid Hill Park

One of the rules in pickup basketball is first-come, first-play. That is, those who show up to the
basketball court first are the first to play. Generally there are a lot more players than there are courts to accommodate them, especially in urban areas so some method has to be arrived at to allocate the scarce resource.*

One day back in 1991 my friend, Don and I went to Druid Hill Park in Baltimore which had a reputation for some good basketball being played. We went on a Sunday just after lunch and the action hadn't really heated up yet. In fact, no games had started and that meant Don and I would get at least one game in. Had we shown up when there were games already in progress, the activity at Druid Hill Park is so heavy that it's likely we would have had to wait two or three games to get into one ourselves--if we succeeded at all.