Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dunham on the Math Ed Meltdown

Here's a good David Brooks editorial on the financial meltdown that could easily have been written about the math ed meltdown:


It starts out:

Roughly speaking, there are four steps to every decision. First, you perceive a situation. Then you think of possible courses of action. Then you calculate which course is in your best interest. Then you take the action.

The editorial is an analysis of some quirks of human nature that have helped generate the current financial crisis. The premise is that too much focus has been on the choice between possible courses of action and too little on the perception of the situation. If this first step is botched, the end result will be also. With a few word substitutions, this editorial applies quite well to the situation we face with math ed in America.

Brooks describes a few pertinent human weaknesses. These are, in his words:

"..our tendency to see data that confirm our prejudices more vividly than data that contradict them; our tendency to overvalue recent events when anticipating future possibilities; our tendency to spin concurring facts into a single causal narrative; our tendency to applaud our own supposed skill in circumstances when we've actually benefited from dumb luck."

In other words, we have a tendency to believe things that aren't true. We construct little castles in our minds, and then dig moats of stubbornness around them to protect them from invading ideas.

I'm not saying I'm any different. I'm human too and have held onto bunk ideas somewhat beyond the point at which it had become obvious to others around me. I've learned that the sooner I recognize, acknowledge, and correct my mistakes; the easier it is to recover from them.

Alan Greenspan, in his remarkable testimony last week, said, "I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations … were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders." Thanks, Mr. Greenspan. We wish you'd been able to see this a little earlier. But faulty perceptions that become the creed of an organization become even more persistent. Challenge to the creed is heresy. Only in the harsh light of obvious and colossal failure was an admission of this magnitude possible.

The financial meltdown occurred in a dramatic flameout. It isn't going to play out that way in math ed. Instead, we have a slow smoldering flame eating away at our national prowess in mathematics, while those who are feeding oxygen to the embers deny that it's burning. We are sending an entire generation into the global workplace less prepared than other nations, whose perceptions of what constitutes an education clearly differ from ours. The consequences are clear to those who allow themselves to see. At what point will the scale of the meltdown be such that our education establishment adjusts its perception of what the problem is?

by Paul Dunham

No comments: