Are We Throwing Out the Baby with the Bath Water? (2010 PI Meeting Reflection)

Submitted by Irving Brown on Wed, 01/12/2011 - 11:51

Irving Brown, Texas A&M University

Shortly after my 10th birthday, Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” This was a short 11 years after the creation of NASA, which was just one of the political-technical reactions to the successful Soviet launch of the first Earth satellite, Sputnik 1. How were these brilliant American and Russian scientists and engineers educated in the mathematical sciences?

We know the only “computers” available to them were slide rules—two measured and marked interlocking bars of steel or wood. (That’s right, plastics were not in commercial production.) How about classroom instruction? Did they use manipulatives to learn to multiply? Did their textbooks have more photos than text or numbers on each page? The classroom has changed over these years, but was all the change necessary? How, then, were they able to learn enough math to put a man on the moon? Could it be that there are in fact benefits to direct instruction in the math classroom?

I’m being a bit facetious with that last question, but several brilliant discussions during the 2010 DR K-12 PI meeting caused me to ponder it. Today’s youngest mathematics education scholars, born about 10 years after the first lunar landing, are being taught “the perils of direct instruction” and cautioned against its use. This was evident during some of the presentations related to mathematics education research, so I have to ask, “Are we throwing out the baby with the bath water?” By repudiating direct instruction and other “classic” methods in the math classrooms, are we able to offer the best curriculum possible?

Okay, before you start throwing rotten fruit and vegetables at me, let me make clear that I am not trying to start a new battle in the “math wars” but, rather, ask a few questions to help me (us) better understand our goals for mathematics education. My personal teaching philosophy is informed by a philosophy composed primarily of cognitive constructivism, with an ample portion of social constructivism, and enough behaviorist theory to give an effective balance between lecture and group work in the classroom. But, then again, I was first educated and trained as a chemical engineer, which may explain my particularly bent perspective! (I’m not sure most engineering faculty knew that various learning theories and teaching strategies existed 20 years ago!)

I believe that inquiry-based and active learning strategies should be the cornerstone of our educational system but that they should not be the only building blocks we use. If we truly want to create the best mathematics curriculum for ALL students, and if we truly want to find ways to effectively educate a diverse student population, then we should avail ourselves of all of the proven tools at our disposal. If we dismiss the use of a method that works for a subset of students, are we able then to effectively reach all students? If we wash our hands of direct instruction and other “classic” methods, are we throwing out the baby (mathematics for all) with the bathwater (selected teaching and learning methods and styles)? After all, direct instruction and other “classic” methods were good enough to launch the Space Age. Considering the plummet of U.S. students’ global ranking in math and science since abandoning direct instruction, maybe we should reconsider all of our curricular options.


Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.