Who would have thought that Math Education can be a political battleground!?
This article explains that indeed for the last hundred years or so in North America, people have fought over what Math Education should be like. Basically there are two polarized views: "the progressive", and the "conservative" (or "traditionalist"). The "progressive" focusses on understanding, inquiry, exploratory approach. The "conservative" is focussed on fluency, and a more authoritative and factual application of algorithms and curriculum in solving problems.
There have been three major waves in the battleground.
The Progressivist movement led primarily from 1910 to 1940 was by John Dewey challenged society to not simply know "how" to apply math to solve a problem, but ask "why" this makes sense. Are there other ways to do it? He challenged students to engage in doing math, not just knowing it. He has a passionate drive to develop Americans to be scientific and democratic thinkers rather than students who just follow rigid rules. While adopted in some classrooms across the country, it was not widespread.
Subsequently, the New Math era in the 1960's evolved, and grew out of America's anxiety over falling behind the Soviets in science and technology. The movement was led by university groups and later NCTM, and French mathematician Bourbaki. They rallied for a new curriculum to include set theory, abstract algebra, calculus, and other university topics, to be introduced and taught from K-12. However by the 1970's the New Math program was found ineffective. It was difficult to implement because math teachers at the K-12 levels were not familiar with these topics themselves!
The third movement, Math Wars over the NCTM Standards, brings us to the 1990s and today. In the 1980's standards were developed to support a more balanced, progressive curriculum. Together with professional development, workshops to train new math teachers, these standards were generally well received. Some wars erupted in the 1990's with a backlash against standards-based curriculum by traditionalists. Other groups chimed in with various takes on the standard based teaching. In 1996, studies showed that America's 8th grade students ranked 28th in the world, well behind many Asian countries. Hence, a move for deeper conceptual learning arose. More research and math groups joined in the dialogue and today there are still on going media coverage of various cries for support for one side or the other.
Why would math education be a political battleground?
From this article, I realise that Math education has deep implications. Not only is Math is used to solve REAL LIFE problems, the education of Math is linked to a nations scientific development, economic well-being and mental satisfaction. At a time when the world is competing technologically and scientifically, Math education is an underlying force behind a more competently educated population of students and scientists. At a time when a nation is more interested in reform and inquiry, our educational methods for Math also reform so we can better thinkers. It is fascinating to see that Math Education is such a dynamic part of a society and nation. How students are learning Math affects the future of the country. I hope that those in power and authority will have the wisdom to find balance in math education methods, and focus on the learner, rather than our ego.