Book of the Month

Back to June 2015 Ed Reporter

Book of the Month

Letters From John Dewey/Letters From Huck Finn: A Look At Math Education From the Inside, Barry Garelick, William R. Parks Publishing, 2014, $7.95

The “math wars” — debates between those who want students to learn math in a traditional manner and those who prefer what has been called “fuzzy math” — have gone on for decades. This book explains what each side of the argument wants.

Garelick discounts those who claim “the old ways of teaching math were just rote memorization, with no understanding.” He believes that “procedural fluency leads to understanding; once you’re able to do certain procedures, its easier to understand why they work.” Memorization must be combined with inquiry in order to make connections.

To relay his experiences as a retired federal employee with a degree in math who returned to school to get an education degree, Barry Garelick wrote anonymous letters using the name “John Dewey,” a progressive educator whose theories are a cornerstone of many American teacher education programs.

While doing his student teaching and working as a substitute teacher, Garelick took the name “Huck Finn” and described his “experiences rafting along the ideological, political, and cultural river known as math education.” Although his observations (originally written as blog posts) are sometimes glib, the subject matter isn’t amusing. Garelick found that those in charge of teacher training showed “a significant and depressing lack of understanding of what math is about.”

The author identifies influence from the the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) as a major problem with math education. The NCTM strongly informs teacher training and math textbooks, but doesn’t believe in memorization. It is foolish to believe students can learn math without memorizing basic arithmetic facts.

Most schools adhere to NCTM and the NCTM fully supports the untested and unwieldy Common Core math standards.

In one example of mathematical wrongheadedness, Garelick addresses a textbook series that millions of students in the U.S. use during their K-12 years, called Everyday Mathematics. The Teacher’s Reference Manual for this McGraw-Hill series states that students do not need to learn “paper-and-pencil algorithms for all possible whole number, fractions, and decimal division problems.” Why? Because “quotients can be found quickly and accurately with a calculator.” This math program introduces calculators in kindergarten.

Students won’t understand math when it is taught that way. Two programs that Garelick likes are Singapore Math and Saxon Math.