Field of Science

Temple Grandin vs algebra

There's a rather strange article by Temple Grandin in the Atlantic, parts of which had me vigorously nodding my head and parts of which had my eyebrows crawling straight up. It's a critique of how our school system tries a one-size-fits-all approach that does a lot of students disservice, but more specifically takes aim at algebra. 

First, let me say how much I admire Temple Grandin. A remarkable woman who had severe autism for most of her childhood (there's a very good profile of her in Oliver Sacks's "An Anthropologist On Mars"), she rose above her circumstances and channeled her unusual abilities into empathy for animals, becoming one of the world's leading experts in the design of humane housing and conditions for livestock. She has without a doubt demonstrated the value of what we can call 'non-standard' modes of thinking, teaching and learning that utilize visual and tactile ability. So she starts off strong enough here:

As a professor of animal science, I have ample opportunity to observe how young people emerge from our education system into further study and the work world. As a visual thinker who has autism, I often think about how education fails to meet the needs of our very diverse minds. We are shunting students into a one-size-fits-all curriculum instead of nurturing the budding builders, engineers, and inventors that our country needs.

So far so good. In fact let me digress a bit here. When I was in high school I was very good at geometry but terrible at algebra; I still remember this one midterm where I got an A and in fact the highest points-based grade in the class in geometry but almost flunked algebra. It took me a long time to claw back to a position where algebra made sense to me. In fact this appreciation of visual explanations was what drew me in part to chemistry, so I perfectly appreciate what Grandin is saying about being sympathetic to students who might have more of a visual capacity. 

But further down the pages she takes a detour into the evils of algebra that doesn't make sense to me. Again, some of what she says is spot on; for instance the fact that algebra (and math in general) can be taught much better if you can relate it to the real world. Too often it's presented simply as abstraction and symbol manipulation. But then there's this:

Cognitive skills may simply not be developed enough to handle abstract reasoning before late adolescence, which suggests that, at the very least, we’re teaching algebra too early and too fast. But abstract reasoning is also developed through experience, which is a good argument for keeping all those extracurriculars.

This part may make more of a case for tying algebra to specific real-world applications than doing away with the abstractions per se. The fact of the matter is that math is abstract; in fact it's precisely this abstraction that makes it a powerful general tool. And there are good and bad ways of teaching that abstraction, but the solution isn't to get rid of it or delay it. In fact, that kind of thinking feeds into the popular belief seen in some quarters these days that algebra and calculus both need to be optional classes.

It's when she gets to the end of the piece, however, that Grandin completely loses me:

"No two people have the same intelligence, not even identical twins. And yet we persist in testing—and teaching—people in the same way. We don’t need Americans to be better at algebra, per se. We need future generations that can build and repair infrastructure, overhaul energy and agriculture, develop robotics and AI. We need kids who grow up with the imagination to invent the solutions to pandemics and climate change. When school fails them, it fails all of us."

Say what? Building and repairing infrastructure, overhauling energy and agriculture and - especially - developing robotics and AI do not need algebra? In fact most of these professions involve a very solid grounding in abstract aspects of algebra and calculus. I think Grandin is treading very handily from saying that algebra should be taught better to saying that we should get rid of it or make it optional. Two very different things.

My concern based on this article and others I am reading these days is that, in our drive to reform the system, we want to consider it unnecessary. That is a grave mistake. Algebra and calculus and for that matter music and art are things that, even beyond the practical utility of the first two, help us appreciate our place in society and the cosmos better and in general teach us to be more human. Make them better we certainly should, but let's not burn the building down in our zeal.

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