The estimable Llewellyn King has some advice for us math and science activists. "Stop haranguing [children] about math and science," he writes. "Math and science are not the same thing; related, yes, identical, no. Math intimidates a lot of children.... Consequently, many young minds are lost to the glorious world of science because they fear that they must pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Math." There is a grain of truth in what he writes, but it may well get lost amidst all his troubling preconceptions about math.
It's not easy to get past King's tone. He lays it on awfully thick with the "Valley of the Shadow of Math" image. Only someone who doesn't much like the subject could see math as a dark trial that stands between students and their redemption through other subjects like science. Indeed, King remembers being "the very worst math student who ever tried addition." All too many adults portray math as a bitter pill.
His claim later on that our "creative footprint across this world" proves that our nation is doing just fine in math, thank you very much, has worn more than a little thin. Just have a look at the most recent Gathering Storm report from the National Academies to see how quickly that world is catching up to us. Our Googles and Facebooks might not always come to us as easily as the leaves to a tree.
Yet here's the grain of truth: As long as we teach math as something ponderous and scary, we aren't doing students any favors. King was "scared off" of math by his teachers, which is why he seems to believe that math is something frightful--unless students learn it in the pursuit of other things.
To be sure, many young people will take to math more easily if they have the chance to see its power to shape the real world they live in. Students need to see the relevance of what they're learning. Math and science activists agree wholeheartedly with that premise.
Yet let's not fall into the all-too-common trap of portraying math as something inherently forbidding. Too many of our elementary teachers come into classrooms with that attitude, and it rubs off on their students.
King may well have his teachers to thank for his early fear of math. Much like those teachers, he risks passing on that terrible legacy.