Sociologists are a constant source of enlightenment as CNN keeps reminding

Kids who are turned

off by math often say they don’t enjoy it, they aren’t good

at it and they see little point in it. Who knew that could be a formula

for success?

The nations with the best scores have the

least happy, least confident math students, says a study by the

Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.

Countries reporting higher levels of enjoyment and confidence

among math students don’t do as well in the subject, the study

suggests.

The eighth-grade results reflected a common

pattern: The 10 nations whose students enjoyed math the most all scored

below average. The bottom 10 nations on the enjoyment scale all

excelled.

As this study is based on the 2003 Trends in International

Mathematics and Science Studies and as “we” scored best

of all western countries

this

probably explains all the unhappy faces in my first-year class on group

theory. However, they seemed quite happy the first few weeks.

Fortunately, this is proof, at least according to the mountain of wisdom, that I’m on the right track

If too many students are too happy in the math

classes, be sure that it is simply because not much is expected from

them. It can’t be otherwise. If teaching of mathematics is

efficient, it is almost guaranteed that a large group or a majority must

dislike the math classes. Mathematics is hard and if it is not hard, it

is not mathematics.

Right on! But then, why is

it that people willing to study maths enter university in a happy mood?

Oh, I get it, yes, it must be because in secondary school not much was

expected of them! Ouf! my entire world is consistent once again.

But then, hey wait, the next big thing that’s inevitably going to

happen is that in 2007 “we” will be tumbling down this world

ranking! And, believe it or not, that is precisely what

all my colleagues are eagerly awaiting to happen. Most of us are willing

to bet our annual income on it. Belgium was among the first countries to

embrace in the sixties-early seventies what was then called

“modern mathematics’ (you know: Venn-diagrams, sets,

topology, categories (mind you, just categories not the n-stuff ) etc.) Whole

generations of promising Belgian math students were able in the late

70ties, 80ties and early 90ties to do what they did mainly because of

this (in spite of graduating from ‘just’ a Belgian

university, only some of which make it barely in the times top 100 ). But

then, in the ’90ties politicians decided that mathematics had to

be sexed-up, only the kind of mathematics that one might recognize in

everyday life was allowed to be taught. For once, I have to

agree with motl.

Also, the attempts to connect mathematics with

the daily life are nothing else than a form of lowering of the

standards. They are a method to make mathematics more attractive for

those who like to talk even if they don’t know what they’re

talking about. They are a method to include mathematics between the

social and subjective sciences. They give a wiggle room to transform

happiness, confidence, common sense, and a charming personality into

good grades.

Indeed, the major problem we are

facing today in first year classes is that most students have no formal

training at all! An example : last week I did a test after three weeks

of working with groups. One of the more silly questions was to ask them

for precise definitions of very basic concepts (groups, subgroups,

cyclic groups, cosets, order of an element) : just 5 out of 44 were able

to do this! Most of them haven’t heard of sets at all. It seems

that some time ago it was decided that sets no longer had a place in

secondary school, so just some of them had at least a few lessons on

sets in primary school (you know the kind (probably you won’t but

anyway) : put all the green large triangles in the correct place in the

Venn diagram and that sort of things). Now, it seems that politicians

have decided that there is no longer a place for sets in primary schools

either! (And if we complain about this drastic lowering of

math-standards in schools, we are thrown back at us this excellent 2003

international result, so the only hope left for us is that we will fall

down dramatically in the 2007 test.) Mind you, they still give

you an excellent math-education in Belgian primary and secondary schools

provided you want to end up as an applied mathematician or (even worse)

a statistician. But I think that we, pure mathematicians, should

seriously consider recruiting students straight from Kindergarten!

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