Innumeracy and the Persistence of Memory
All of my grades are based on percentages. I'm not one of these teachers who wants to convert someone's scores in my head, so I just weight grades differently. But all grades are based on 100 possible points. I can tell at a glance how a student is doing this way.
But this habit often makes it interesting when students are trying to figure out their grades on quizzes. I usually have a rather simple number of questions in terms of being able to calculate grades easily: 5, 10, 12, 20, 25, or 33 items. As I watched several of my AP students struggle with figuring out their grades, I had to suppress a groan of frustration. It was a 20 item quiz-- therefore each question would be worth 5 points, right? Young Frederick wanted to pull out his calculator to figure out what his score would be if he missed 7.
"No calculator. You can do this," I urged.
He couldn't begin to figure out how to determine his grade without a calculator. He is 16 years old and taking pre-calculus and other college-track classes (I never took a course beyond algebra 2, much to my chagrin). He doesn't immediately know that 7x5=35, and then subtract 35 from 100, nor can he figure out that 13x5=65. As a matter of fact, he stumbled over the 100-35 part and insisted the answer was 75.
It is obvious that his only problem is NOT that he didn't do his reading for my AP US history class carefully enough last night. His problem begins with a basic innumeracy. Of course, many would say that he is a victim of a larger educational trend which I pray to God is finally being placed on the pyre of idiotic educational theories: that rote memorization is bad, bad, baddety bad bad.
Frederick has to THINK about what 6x9 is, and he doesn't get that 6x9 is the same as 9x6 is the same as 3x2x9 is the same as (3 cubed) x2, and so on-- that's a related but different problem we could talk about all day. I think it's a crime that Frederick has to waste valuable thinking time on matters such as 6x5, much less 100-35. Frederick has much more complex things to think about, but by the time he gets there, his poor little thinker is all worn out on information he should have committed to recall 7 or 8 years ago.
The greatest civilizations of the ages depended upon rote memorization. The Torah was preserved through the power of memory for hundreds of years. The Iliad and the Odyssey were memorized and sung for generations. But somewhere along the line in the last forty or so years, memorizing was a skill that became shameful and vilified by someone among the educational cognoscenti. In the words of some of my students, I would like to find this dude and kick him in the shins.
I still remember huge chunks of poetry and music that I had to memorize over twenty years ago.
"Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,
To wash the cups and saucers up and brush the crumbs away,
And shoo the chickens off the porch and dust the hearth and sweep,
And make the fire and bake the bread and earn her board and keep..."
...and I could keep going for the next 30 or so lines, trust me....
"But soft! What light through yonder window breaks!
It is the East, and Juliet the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon
Who is already sick and pale with grief...."
Not to mention the lyrics to almost every song on the pop charts since 1974, much to my enduring shame in some cases (Some people call me the Space Cowboy, yeah; some call me the Gangster of Love; some people call me Maurice, 'cause I speak of the pompitous of Love-- YIKES!)....
My two youngest kids learned the names of the presidents in order to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." When they were 4. In preschool. Before they could read.
What is all the more appalling is that we live in the "Information Age." Never has so much information been at the fingertips of so many but been manipulated or understood by so few.
In this year's State of the Union address, President Bush called for creation of the American Competitiveness Initiative, the goal of which is to encourage more study of math and science. This is all well and good, but when students lack a fundamental understanding of the way that numbers work, I fear their ability to go any deeper into the subject. Let's also not overlook the fact that mathematics is also the language of science. Combine innumeracy with the frightful lack of vocabulary (there's that darn memorization thing again) and you've got a seemingly insurmountable problem. Further consider the default response of 90% of our students to delayed gratification, frustration or struggle-- which is to quit--and you've got a major crisis on your hands.
Then you've got this bubble headed bozo who assures students that algebra is unnecessary. More kicks in the shins for this dude.
I am on the verge of promising young Frederick and his classmates a pizza party if they learn their times tables. If we don't get them now, we may never get them. And this is too important to ignore.