Math Education: Why we are where we are

   I have from time to time read about all the horrors of our current educational system and the ongoing ways that people have come up with to ‘fix’ our broken system. Yes, our system definitely has its faults, and I’ll touch on those in a moment (I think the largest is a dictatorial set up of learning), but have you ever wondered why we are where we are in terms of our education and math education in particular?

Fredrick the Great of Prussia by Anton Graff, via Wikimedia Commons.

   The most common system of education in the United States and the world is based off the Prussian education system. The Prussian education system, which began in 1716, has an odd and strangely juxtapositional beginning. One half of the juxtaposition was a high minded religious ideal and the other half was all about governmental control. Before universal education was brought about by the Prussian education system, education was expensive and you got what your parents could afford. According to  Brendan McGuigan on Wisegeek “The Pietists,(1) among other religious factions of the time, believed that the deepest understanding of God could come only through a personal reading of the Bible; therefore, literacy was important for all people, not just the wealthy.” What seperated the Pietist movement from other creeds that called for literacy was that the Pietists wanted to create schools for all and not just for literacy, math was also considered to be a fundamental part of education. The Pietist movement was started by Johann Kaspar Sehade (2) in 1686 in Dresden, the capital of Saxony in the Germanies.(3) 

    The second half of the juxtaposition was that King Fredrick the Great of Prussia was looking for a way to consolidate power in his newly formed country. King Fredrick took the ideas of Johann Sehade and modified them to cement control of his newly formed dynasty through blind obedience to those in power.(4) (You will obey the teacher…or else.) The Prussian system was not all bad; it introduced the idea of universal education to the world, and some would argue that the advent of universal education heralded the start of the industrial revolution (5) or if not the start then definitely the continuation and acceleration of the revolution into the world we know today.

The Prussian educational system was brought to the United States by Horace Mann (4) in 1843 and has been used for compulsory universal education ever since. I remember that on my first day of college at the University of Arizona I was shocked when at the end of the freshman orientation a questionnaire was handed out by a representative of the state board of education that asked for our opinions on what should or should not be taught to high school students. I don’t remember all of the subjects, but two of them were the swastika and the Holocaust. The reason I was shocked was they wanted to know my opinion on something and not to just a regurgitation of knowledge. This was the first time my opinion was considered of worth at all by any organization, much less the government. The point of this flashback was to point out that the inherent obedience training that was put into the Prussian system is still there in a subtle way; it says without words that you (the student) know nothing, and your opinion is worth even less. At least it had seemed so to me. The Prussian system is very good for rote memorization, and the idea of universal education is unbelievably important, because it is not possible to predict where or when the next super genius world changer will show up.

What does all this have to do with math education? I believe it is best illustrated with a metaphor. Imagine a society in which all of its technology and understanding of the world was based around beautiful and amazing works of art. Now imagine for a moment that this world taught its children art almost exclusively through paint-by-numbers™. Then we for some bizarre reason expect the children to be able to paint masterpieces while they are busy looking for the lines to paint inside of. This is similar to what the Prussian system does for math education. There have been through the years various attempts at reform, some of the latest have been Khan Academy, Google schools, and the new common core standards. These groups and reforms are all attempting to make math a more accessible subject. An aspect to the difficulty of math education that these reforms can not take into account is the societal belief that math is hard and the problem that most of the ‘math’ teachers in primary education are not well versed in mathematics themselves.

   These problems are linked and unfortunately endemic to our society and even though it can not be dealt with until more people really understand math there are some signs of hope. (Quite the catch 22 though, isn’t it?)  Like the recent sea change towards “nerds” and “geeks” in our society.  In recent years it has become more socially acceptable to be smart and, our media is reflecting this. So here is hoping that this societal change of heart really takes hold and we can become much better at math and be proud of it.



3 it was known as the Germanies at the time because the unification of the German city-states did not happen until 1871 under Emperor Wilhelm I

4 of-public-schooling1.pdf

5 Me, its argued by me, there may be others but definitely me.


One thought on “Math Education: Why we are where we are

  1. A Stewart

    Great article. Found it whilst on a cyber stroll meandering about the topic of mathematics.

    If you and your classmates don’t mind… My double penny addendum is this….(if you do mind now is the appropriate exiting point.)

    We are so focused on what fails our student’s wrt mathematics that we miss the answer. Our successes at mathematics education. If we were to take the time to see what works for those whom do well and apply it to those whom do not perhaps we could establish some new ways to communicate fundamental concepts early on.

    For me I was lucky enough to be one of the nerds who was ahead of the teacher in curriculum. But I come to understand my learning process very early on. I don’t mean I was good at memorizing(by itself. I am blessed with an exceptional data storage as well) I mean I took my pen and paper and categorized what I was learning by topic and delivery and compared it to how readily and comfortably I was receiving the information. Then I began reading the world encyclopedia and applying different techniques and commiting my efforts. And I began to establish mannerisms and procedures that deepened understanding of information and improved my ability to retain the information indefinitely.

    The end conclusion that I reached was that there is no limit to any one single persons ability to understand information. Instead there is a unique facet to each persons method of learning and the current strategies amongst educators do not encompass them all.

    And finally we need mathematics professors who themselves understand foundational concepts of number theory as well as operations. Many that I encounter have vast amounts of rules and equations memorized. They make great calculators and their arduous task of line by line work interchanging and simplifying equations and functions can oft be entertaining. But they still miss the vast and truly abstract idea of 1+2=3.

    Well thank you for allowing me to post my novella. Again great article and fresh thinking!




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