Saturday, August 25, 2007

Review of Why Johnny Can't Add

Morri's Kline's Why Johnny Can't Add was written in 1973 as an attempt to change the direction of mathematics education. Mathematics went through a small upheaval at the turn of the century with the foundational "crisis", the Bourbaki program, and related developments.

These developments inspired pedagogical reform that Kline felt made little sense. The book is an extended polemic against the pedagogical reforms that came to be known as "the New Math".

His argument is essentially that the New Math involves teaching abstract mathematics and a whole bunch of other things like set theory, group theory, arbitrary bases, and clock arithmetic, . . . to schoolchildren, at the expense of the basics.

The reforms insisted on abstraction, Kline argued for a more concrete approach to the teaching of mathematics.

For the record I am not convinced that Kline or his opponents were correct. I have no idea how mathematics is taught today, and I am pretty convinced that there are few good theories of education. But he did make a good recommendation. Kline suggests that we really need to treat mathematics education like a real science. That is we have to do real research in to what works in education. This needs to be taken more seriously than it is.

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