I think elementary math education in the USA is, on average, quite bad. The worst part about it is that the mental habits acquired during these formative years are nearly impossible to break. I’m fairly competent at math now (though, I don’t know as much as I’d like), but I still struggle against the attitudes and habits from school. How much more understanding would I have if my early education had been more appropriate?
Numerical arithmetic should look to children like a simpler and faster way of doing things that they know how to do already, not a set of mysterious recipes for getting right answers to meaningless questions.
– John Holt, How Children Fail
This reminds me of the essay Guessing the Teacher’s Password by Eliezer Yudkowsky:
Suppose the teacher presents you with a confusing problem involving a metal plate next to a radiator; the far side feels warmer than the side next to the radiator. The teacher asks “Why?” If you say “I don’t know”, you have no chance of getting a gold star – it won’t even count as class participation. But, during the current semester, this teacher has used the phrases “because of heat convection”, “because of heat conduction”, and “because of radiant heat”. One of these is probably what the teacher wants. You say, “Eh, maybe because of heat conduction?”
This is not a hypothesis about the metal plate. This is not even a proper belief. It is an attempt to guess the teacher’s password.
I worry about my 2-year-old daughter’s future. Especially given the fact that I don’t know how to find good teachers. There is no thriving industry of teacher and school reviews like there is for some of the other products we use (see gadgets and cars, for example).