A Rebel Math Curriculum

One of many insightful educators I follow on Twitter, Tom Whitby, wrote A Modest Blog Proposal asking for bloggers to post educational suggestions on October 17th, 2010. He proposed the acronym REBELS for “Reforms from Educational Bloggers Links of Educational Suggestions”. I found the idea of a "rebel" education very intriguing and if there's one place where educators need to resist authority, I think it's the mathematics curriculum.

Before we get into my proposed curriculum, it's important to have an idea of where we're starting. Paul Lockhart describes the existing system quite concisely in A Mathematician's Lament:

The Standard School Mathematics Curriculum

LOWER SCHOOL MATH. The indoctrination begins. Students learn that mathematics is not something you do, but something that is done to you. Emphasis is placed on sitting still, filling out worksheets, and following directions. Children are expected to master a complex set of algorithms for manipulating Hindi symbols, unrelated to any real desire or curiosity on their part, and regarded only a few centuries ago as too difficult for the average adult. Multiplication tables are stressed, as are parents, teachers, and the kids themselves.

MIDDLE SCHOOL MATH. Students are taught to view mathematics as a set of procedures, akin to religious rites, which are eternal and set in stone. The holy tablets, or “Math Books,” are handed out, and the students learn to address the church elders as “they” (as in “What do they want here? Do they want me to divide?”) Contrived and artificial “word problems” will be introduced in order to make the mindless drudgery of arithmetic seem enjoyable by comparison. Students will be tested on a wide array of unnecessary technical terms, such as ‘whole number’ and ‘proper fraction,’ without the slightest rationale for making such distinctions. Excellent preparation for Algebra I.

ALGEBRA I. So as not to waste valuable time thinking about numbers and their patterns, this course instead focuses on symbols and rules for their manipulation. The smooth narrative thread that leads from ancient Mesopotamian tablet problems to the high art of the Renaissance algebraists is discarded in favor of a disturbingly fractured, post-modern retelling with no characters, plot, or theme. The insistence that all numbers and expressions be put into various standard forms will provide additional confusion as to the meaning of identity and equality. Students must also memorize the quadratic formula for some reason.

GEOMETRY. Isolated from the rest of the curriculum, this course will raise the hopes of students who wish to engage in meaningful mathematical activity, and then dash them. Clumsy and distracting notation will be introduced, and no pains will be spared to make the simple seem complicated. This goal of this course is to eradicate any last remaining vestiges of natural mathematical intuition, in preparation for Algebra II.

ALGEBRA II. The subject of this course is the unmotivated and inappropriate use of coordinate geometry. Conic sections are introduced in a coordinate framework so as to avoid the aesthetic simplicity of cones and their sections. Students will learn to rewrite quadratic forms in a variety of standard formats for no reason whatsoever. Exponential and logarithmic functions are also introduced in Algebra II, despite not being algebraic objects, simply because they have to be stuck in somewhere, apparently. The name of the course is chosen to reinforce the ladder mythology. Why Geometry occurs in between Algebra I and its sequel remains a mystery.

TRIGONOMETRY. Two weeks of content are stretched to semester length by masturbatory definitional runarounds. Truly interesting and beautiful phenomena, such as the way the sides of a triangle depend on its angles, will be given the same emphasis as irrelevant abbreviations and obsolete notational conventions, in order to prevent students from forming any clear idea as to what the subject is about. Students will learn such mnemonic devices as “SohCahToa” and “All Students Take Calculus” in lieu of developing a natural intuitive feeling for orientation and symmetry. The measurement of triangles will be discussed without mention of the transcendental nature of the trigonometric functions, or the consequent linguistic and philosophical problems inherent in making such measurements. Calculator required, so as to further blur these issues.

PRE-CALCULUS. A senseless bouillabaisse of disconnected topics. Mostly a half-baked attempt to introduce late nineteenth-century analytic methods into settings where they are neither necessary nor helpful. Technical definitions of ‘limits’ and ‘continuity’ are presented in order to obscure the intuitively clear notion of smooth change. As the name suggests, this course prepares the student for Calculus, where the final phase in the systematic obfuscation of any natural ideas related to shape and motion will be completed.

CALCULUS. This course will explore the mathematics of motion, and the best ways to bury it under a mountain of unnecessary formalism. Despite being an introduction to both the differential and integral calculus, the simple and profound ideas of Newton and Leibniz will be discarded in favor of the more sophisticated function-based approach developed as a response to various analytic crises which do not really apply in this setting, and which will of course not be mentioned. To be taken again in college, verbatim.

So if Educational Rebels could have their way with the math curriculum, what would it look like instead? Certainly it would be different from what goes on in the Educational Empire.

Rebel vs. Empire terminology geekily borrowed from Star Wars. Image obtained from Wookieepedia.

Within the Educational Empire, there are Official Imperial Standards which teachers must adhere to or they will be fired and annual multiple-choice tests that students must take as if their lives depended on them. As Imperial teachers routinely state, students who do poorly on these tests will die poor and lonely, and students who do well on these tests will go on to an Empire approved Private Academy where they will accumulate massive debts which must be repaid to the Empire through decades of hard labor.

The Rebels would do away with all of this. Instead of multiple-choice choice tests, students would have authentic assessments where they create products they can be proud of. Teachers would have educational goals in mind for instruction, but the nature of the material covered is directed by the students. Students are free to learn about the things they are genuinely interested in, and often go home telling their parents how they “can't wait to go to school tomorrow”. Upon graduating from public schools, students are well prepared to start pursuing the career of their choice. Those who want to further the field of knowledge in their respective area of interest can go on to to a Rebel college for free, where they are guided in conducting effective scientific research.

The Rebels would need to rewrite the curriculum from scratch to accomplish all of this, starting with the math curriculum. The new curriculum would be nonlinear and individualized for each student. The students would be the ones to direct learning, and the teacher would be there as an experienced learning guide. The following tale describes the math curriculum of some hypothetical Rebel students:

Rebel Mathematics Curriculum

Elementary School

Student exposure to mathematics begins with games. Students start with simple games in the beginning, and the games get more complicated as the students progress. These particular students start with games like Rock-Paper-Scissors, Go Fish, Tic-Tac-Toe, Hide-and-Seek and Dodgeball. In the context of these games, students learn how to play within a set of rules and learn the basic language of logic and sets. Students learn what it means when the rules say “Do this and this”, “Don't do this or that”, “Move this from this group to that group”, “Combine this group and that group”, “Separate this group into multiple groups based on some quality”. These concepts form a solid foundation for mathematical thinking. As students progress, they get into games where counting becomes more important. Students play games like Sorry!, Chutes and Ladders, Hi Ho Cherry-O, and even sports like Tennis. As students become more familiar with counting, they get into games with more complex scoring methods like Yahtzee, Blackjack, Monopoly, and Risk where they further develop their arithmetic skills.

Dice games like Yahtzee can be used to introduce basic arithmetic skills. Image obtained from Wikipedia.

Middle School

In Middle School, students continue to play increasingly complex games. Students play board games like Chess and Go, card games like Poker, and video games like Sim City and World of Warcraft. Students are encourage to engage in meta-cognitive processes as they play, by talking about different strategies for optimizing how they play. The basic concepts behind Algebra and Probability emerge naturally from these discussions. Students start developing games of their own, beginning with board and card games and moving into programming simple video games. That's right, all students are encouraged to start programming in middle school. After the students develop a prototype game, they play-test the game, collect data from the play-test, analyze that data, and use the information they discover to revise the rules of their game. The middle school hosts a Game Convention at the end of the school year where each class puts on a demonstration of their game and the process they used to come up with it. The parents are invited to come play their kids' games and see how the students' critical thinking skills have developed.

Game record of a Go match between Honinbo Shuusaku and Gennen Inseki in 1846. Image obtained from Wikipedia. The game of Go is immensely complex, and one of few games where Artificial Intelligence research has yet to reach the level of professional human players.

High School

In High School, the class of students that worked as a group in middle school starts to diverge into different groups based on individual interests. Students with an interest in sports might have a math course that is focused on Geometry and Spacial-Reasoning, with a little bit of Game Theory on the side. Students with an interest in Music might combine Trigonometry and a little computer programming to produce new and interesting sound effects. A group of photography and art students start programming new filters in GIMP to create original effects for their images. A group of students interested in journalism learns about web programming as they put together a professional looking web site. A group of students that developed an interest in Racing games, is introduced to physics and some real-world automotive engineering. A group of students with an interest in programming starts learning about Calculus as they write their own First-Person Shooter. Another group of students uses a Lego Mindstorms kit to build a robot that sorts a line of objects by size, learning a variety of math and engineering skills in the process. Students graduate from high school with more than just a diploma, but a portfolio of work demonstrating their mastery in their subject area of interest. Students show off these portfolios at a convention where the local employers are known to stop by to identify potential job candidates. Most of these students will move straight into a job in their field of interest, but some will go on to pursue further research opportunities in college.

Products like Lego Mindstorms can be used in high school to develop practical engineering skills. Image obtained from Official Lego site.


All Rebel students have the option of furthering their education in a publicly owned and operated Rebel University. This education is provided at no cost to students. Exceptional students conducting research at the Rebel University may even be paid for their contributions. Rebel society recognizes the value of academic research, and considers the value of the knowledge resulting from student research to more than compensate for the costs associated with running the Rebel University. Students don't just go to college to learn, they go to further the existing knowledge in their respective fields.


In this Rebel Education, gone are the days of Algebra, Geometry, More Algebra, Trigonometry, and Calculus. Gone are the days of lengthy multiple choice tests. Teachers assess students by analyzing the products they create and encourage the students themselves to critically reflect on their own creations. Students are not pressured to meet Imperial standards, but instead are responsible for setting their own goals for improvement each semester. The students don't feel like they are competing to score higher than their classmates, but instead learn to recognize that each of their classmates has a different set of skills and that by cooperating they can achieve things that they could not do alone. While the Empire is pumping out clone after clone, the Rebels are producing a diverse array of students with varying sets of knowledge and skills.

Which students do you think would be happier and more successful in life? Those with their Empire prescribed cookie-cutter education? Or those from the Rebel academies?

I must confess that there has not been enough research to predict what the long-term effects of such a Rebel education would be. However, I do think there is a substantial amount of evidence indicating that the traditional Imperial curriculum is failing. Educational research provides incremental improvements to the existing curriculum, but perhaps the system's assumption that everyone should have the same education is fundamentally flawed. At some point in the future, it may become necessary for "Educational Rebels" to overthrow the "Educational Empire" and challenge this assumption. The mathematics curriculum proposed here may not be perfect, but it might provide a starting point that educators can revise and improve over time.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. You are free to share and remix this work, provided that the source is properly attributed and derivations are released under a similar license.

(d/dt) Nature Of Math = 0?

Over at the Republic of Math, Gary Davis launched a preemptive strike on Thursday's upcoming #mathchat topic: "Does the nature of mathematics change as students get older or is it only the teaching methods that change?". His conclusion? Neither. I would tend to agree with this, but I'm going to play devil's advocate here and argue a different perspective.

Looking at this from the overall historical perspective, the "nature of math" has not changed very much over the years. The concepts at the core of mathematics, like quantities and patterns, are the same as they were thousands of years ago. The teaching methods for encouraging development also remain fundamentally the same as students age. Teachers seek to identify a student's present level of understanding and design learning activities that will bring that understanding to the "next level". From this perspective, neither the nature of math nor methods of teaching change over time.

However, there's something interesting in how this #mathchat topic is phrased. The question is not "does the nature of math change over time?" but rather "does the nature of math change as students get older?". If we concede the former point about the nature of math remaining the same over time from a historical perspective, the phrasing of the #mathchat topic hints at an alternative interpretation. Redirecting this question to the reader:

Did the "nature of math" change as you got older?

My answer to this is "Yes". The "nature of math" became more and more refined as I was exposed to new mathematical ideas. In particular, my preconceived notions about "the nature of math" were shattered into pieces when I learned about this guy:

Kurt Gödel

Around the turn of the 20th century, Russell, Whitehead and Hilbert were attempting to build a solid foundation for mathematics using logic and set theory. This is more or less how I thought of the "nature of math" prior to college. I thought that if I only understood the basic rules of the "math game", I could figure out anything I needed to from applying those rules in a logical manner. It turns out I was wrong.

In 1931, Gödel published his famous Incompleteness Theorem. This result proved that the kind of system that Russell, Whitehead and Hilbert were attempting to create would either be incomplete or inconsistent. Likewise, this theorem single-handedly destroyed the concept of "the nature of math" that I had built up over the years. In its place I started to form a new concept about the "nature of math". Gödel had taught me to start looking at mathematics from outside the box.

Some other works that altered my notions about the nature of math were Turing's proof that the Halting Problem is undecidable and Cantor's Diagonal Argument. There are many parallels between all three of these results. What really resonated with me was the metacognitive component to these proofs. The nature of math had shifted from thinking about how I could play within the rules of the game, to thinking about how those rules could be bent or broken. Instead of "thinking about math", I started "thinking about how I thought about math".

This change in my perception of the nature of math not only influenced my future learning, but also changed how I thought about previous topics. The Republic of Math article mentions trigonometry, which is one of those areas that I was forced to revisit with this new perspective. As Gary notes in this and previous posts (here and here), there are lots of problems with trigonometry's reliance on triangles. Under my new "nature of math", the assumption that triangles needed to lie in a Euclidean space was no longer a safe assumption to make.

My background as computer programmer also altered my conception of trigonometry. Because trig functions and square roots can be computationally expensive, I developed a habit of avoiding them whenever possible. Most of the time I can get the data I need from a dot product instead of working with angles. Instead of using the distance between points, I'll often use the square of the distance as my metric. I'd learned to not just solve the problem, but to reflect on how I was solving the problem and try to optimize that process.

This brings me to the second part of the #mathchat prompt, which is "do teaching methods change as students get older?". Earlier I discussed the notion that the teacher should identify a students level of comprehension and guide them towards the "next level". With this trigonometry example, we can see that this model is overly simplistic. Math is not linear. Instead, the teacher must not only identify the student's current conception, but also which path that student is following so they can encourage them in that direction. If students are starting to think about trigonometry in terms of vector dot products, guide them towards linear algebra. If students are starting to think about triangles on spherical surfaces, guide them towards non-Euclidian geometry. Experienced educators like Gary are probably very adept at this. However, I think the reality of the situation is that most math teachers are not.

From the perspective of this student, the "teaching methods" did not change as I got older. With one exception, my math teachers adhered rigidly to the following procedure:

  1. lecture to blackboard for entire class period
  2. assign dozens of homework problems
  3. test on material
  4. rinse and repeat

How many math classes have you taken that followed this pattern? How many did not? There is an urgent need for the kind of teacher training Gary describes, where the focus is on personalized student development. Too many teachers are caught up in teaching the content, when they should be facilitating student learning instead.

In conclusion:

Does the nature of mathematics change as students get older or is it only the teaching methods that change?

Yes, a student's model of the "nature of math" can change as that student grows older and discovers new results from the field of mathematics. I also think it's arguable that the "nature of math" is not necessarily static, as presumed above, but that Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem fundamentally changed the "nature of math" by using mathematics as a tool for analyzing itself -- giving birth to metamathematics.

No, teaching methods do not change as the student grows older, but they do vary from teacher to teacher. In general, I think the "typical math teachers" need to take a cue from Gödel and start thinking more outside the box. The mathematics classroom needs to shift from its lecture/homework/test/repeat cycle, where math is essentially taught using an "argument from authority", to an experimental environment where students are encouraged to question the information they receive.

Reflections on #mathchat: Mathphobia

Today's #mathchat was a repeat of last Thursday's discussion on “Mathphobia”. One of my questions in Thursday's chat prompted a very insightful commentary from Gary Davis, a.k.a. @RepublicOfMath. With this new evidence in mind, I tried to observe today's #mathchat with a fresh perspective. I couldn't quite condense my thoughts into 140 characters, so I'm taking this opportunity to summarize what I learned from the experience.

First, I think its important to clarify what is meant by “mathphobia”. For the sake of clarity, I'll use the term “mathphobia” in the same sense as @RepublicOfMath's article. Mathphobia is a condition where an individual is terrified of mathematics to the point of feeling physically sick at the thought of math. I'll use the term “math anxiety” to refer to a lesser version of this condition, where an individual experience a fear of math that interferes with mathematical performance but is not as completely disabling as mathphobia. In general, moderate symptoms of math anxiety are highly prevalent in society. As @ColinTGraham noted, research studies have shown that simply telling adults that they're going to take a math test will cause their blood pressure to rise! I realize that this distinction between “math anxiety” and “mathphobia” is somewhat fuzzy, but for the sake of argument these labels will suffice for now.

Reviewing Thursday's #mathchat archive, I think you can see two different conversation lines taking place. One conversation about mathphobia and another about math anxiety.

With regards to @RepublicOfMath's proposal that mathphobia is the result of abusive teachers, this makes a lot of sense from the standpoint of classical conditioning. If a student repeatedly has painful experiences with mathematics instruction, then the student will gradually learn to associate the two. As a consequence, experiencing any subsequent mathematical instruction will automatically trigger a painful response.

With math anxiety, there are similar mechanisms at work. For example, the rise in blood pressure in preparation for a math test can be interpreted as a conditioned response to the need for an increase in cognitive processing. The high prevalence of math anxiety symptoms suggests that math anxiety can develop with or without “abusive teachers”. I think that a variety of the “mathphobia causes” discussed in Thursday's #mathchat may contribute to math anxiety in some form or another, but may not be a cause of the more extreme mathphobia as described above.

With today's #mathchat, I saw something a little bit different happen. The conversation took a turn towards “math avoidance” – the lack of participation in mathematical activities. Here I think we see the crux of the problem. When a student develops math anxiety or mathphobia, that student begins a behavioral pattern of math avoidance. This behavior is self-reinforcing because it allows the student to avoid the painful stimuli associated with math. In order to undo the association that underlies the math anxiety or mathphobia the student needs to be presented with stimulus-response situations that are positive, but when the student avoids math altogether this becomes a difficult task.

The other complication that math avoidance presents is that it becomes difficult to distinguish between students who suffer from math anxiety or mathphobia, and those who are avoiding it for other reasons. Those reasons might be a lack of perceived relevance, a negative social image of math, or a lack of self-confidence. Many of these issues were identified in Thursday's #mathchat, but the focus of today's chat really tied them all together for me.

In conclusion, I think we need to address math anxiety and mathphobia from two directions. First, the classroom needs to be a safe environment where students are free to make mistakes and learn from them rather than being punished for them. Secondly, the behavior of math avoidance needs to be addressed. In order to facilitate the extinction of the conditioned stimulus-response to math, students need to be exposed to math in a positive environment. At first glance, it may seem like this is “treating the symptom rather than the cause”. However, if teachers do not provide temporary relief for the symptom of math avoidance, it won't be possible to “treat the cause” of math anxiety or mathphobia.

Some questions for further discussion:

  • Where does one draw the line between "math anxiety" and "mathphobia"?
  • How can educators address "math avoidance" behaviors?
  • What are the best practices for creating and maintaining an empathetic and non-threatening mathematics classroom?

Wake up Virginia District 4! Stop the hate!

/rant on

Earlier this week, the Virginian Pilot published an article entitled Forbes versus LeGrow: In God, only one trusts. Rather than focusing on the candidates' stances on political issues, the article focuses solely on the candidates' differing religious beliefs. Not only is this coverage thoroughly distasteful, but some of the comments added by readers demonstrate a sickening level of ignorance and intolerance. Voters in Virginia's 4th Congressional District need to look past religion this November. To do otherwise is to reinforce a culture of bigotry and hate that has plagued this great nation for far too long.

Allow me to start by correcting Mr. Forbes on the language used in the Declaration of Independence. The "Creator" referred to in the Declaration of Independence is not "God" as used in the Christian sense of the word. Rather, the word "Creator" is used here as a metaphor for "Nature". The Treaty of Tripoli clarifies this, explicitly stating that the US "is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion".

Secondly, Mr. Forbes swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Included in the 1st Amendment of the Constitution is the following:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion

Mr. Forbes has sponsored two bills which, if passed, would violate this Amendment:

  • H.Con.Res.274 attempts to reaffirm "In God We Trust" as a national motto
  • H.Res.397 falsely characterizes the founding of this nation as being religious in nature

By proposing this legislation, Mr. Forbes has made it clear that he has no intention to adhere to his oath to uphold the Constitution and is therefore unfit to hold office. Mr. Forbes also started a "Congressional Prayer Caucus", further blurring the line between church and state.

That's not to mention the fact that Mr. Forbes also participated in Glenn Beck's rally on 8-28-10, an event which was coincidentally held on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a dream" speech and at the same location. Mr. Forbes attendance at this event is an implicit endorsement of Beck's platform. The issues with such an endorsement are too numerous to list here, so instead I'll point to this clip from The Colbert Report and leave it at that.

The real issue that I want to address here, are the reactions from the VA Democrats in the Pilot article. State Delegate Lionell Spruill says "I can't take him to churches as an atheist... That would hurt me." Really? Contrary to popular belief, atheists do not spontaneously combust upon entering churches. Spruill is not in danger of being physically hurt by bringing Dr. LeGrow into a church. Instead the issue seems to be that Spruill is afraid that supporting an atheist for office may harm his chances for re-election. This behavior is inconsistent with the Democratic party's platform, which says that the party is committed to "[e]nding racial, ethnic, and religious profiling" (emphasis mine). Heck, even the Republican platform condones this type of behavior. The US Constitution explicitly states that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States". It doesn't get much clearer than that.

Part of the problem is with constituents like Rev. Jake Manley Sr., who says in the Pilot article: "I could not vote for a man who doesn't believe in some power higher than his." Really, this is just a euphemism for "I could not vote for an atheist". This is religious profiling, and not even very subtle at that! If he had instead said "I could not vote for a Black/White/Mexican/Asian/Christian/Jew/Muslim" there would be public outrage! But for some reason, people think it's okay to engage in blatant discrimination against atheists. It's not.

My message to my fellow voters in VA-4 is to not let religion cloud your vision this November. Here we have an opportunity to replace an incumbent who has ignored his Congressional oath with a doctor who cares about providing people with medical care, better education, and a clean energy future. Vote with reason, your nation needs it right now.

/rant off