Parrot Math

By Thomas C. O'Brien

In Phi Beta Kappan, February 1999

ABSTRACT (beginning of the article):
A small but vociferous group of very well-organized critics is espousing a return to "parrot math." These critics believe that mathematics education in elementary schools should be confined largely to arithmetic and that mathematics should be taught by the force-feeding of inert facts and procedures shorn of any real-life context. They have no tolerance for children's invented strategies or original thinking, and they leave no room for children's use of estimation or calculators.

The critics claim that their approach is the only correct approach. Although some of their most vocal leaders have no apparent expertise in mathematics and no experience teaching mathematics at any level, they say that anyone who criticizes them is not a mathematician or doesn't understand how students learn mathematics. Their understanding of how children learn mathematics gives short shrift to the notion that knowledge is a personally constructed network of ideas, information, images, and relationships that tends toward coherence, stability, economy, and generalizability.

They criticize new approaches to the teaching of math -- approaches that can be summarized by saying that math should make sense to children and that children should be thinkers rather than storage bins for thinking done by others. They also argue that constructivism is a fad -- this despite 80 years of empirical research, replicated worldwide, on the construction and growth of children's thinking about essential mathematical and scientific ideas, such as number, space, logic, causality, classification, and contradiction. The main findings of this body of research -- that the development of knowledge comes from an interaction between knower and known, that children's thinking is very different from adults' thinking, and that social interaction is a major cause of intellectual growth -- are foreign to them.

In the field of children's learning of arithmetic, there is significant research to show that the force-feeding of computational procedures is harmful. But the critics continue to insist that arithmetic -- and knowledge in general -- is inert stuff to be transmitted and stored.

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