Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Rube Goldberg Meets William of Ockham

            New math; old math? I have no children and I am not in frequent contact with any parents of school-age children but with what I’ve seen about so-called Common Core math I see a parallel to Rube Goldberg (1883-1970) who created devices deliberately over-engineered to take 20 or more steps to accomplish a two-step task. Goldberg was an American cartoonist and inventor. His “cartoons” humorously described a complicated series of steps to achieve a very simple result. Just like the “New Math” in which I see no humor.
            Enter William of Ockham, an English friar, philosopher and theologian. Ockham (c. 1287-1347) is credited with developing a problem-solving principle which held, generally, that when there are multiple hypotheses, the one needing the fewest assumptions is likely the correct one. The fewer assumptions, the greater the likelihood of repeating the same result which is related to the empirical nature of The Scientific Method – testability and repeatability. This is the “Old Math”.
            Educators tout the value of Common Core as bringing to students a broader exposure, immediately, to the underlying principles of Mathematics. My bias will show when I say there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the old way. Even the best Forensic experts in any field learned their craft by starting with the basics progressing layer by layer to broader knowledge and understanding.
            Writers are advised to begin their stories in medias res (in the middle of things). In medias res is definitely not the best way to teach math. Even Euclid of Alexandria, the Greek mathematician regarded as the father of geometry, determined that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. Start at the beginning point and progress to the next without swerving. To dapple in arithmetic, algebra and perhaps calculus, simultaneously, before mastering the basics seems ludicrous.
            I learned math the old way – arithmetic, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, logarithms, and calculus. I can solve most math problems easier than I can open pilfer-proof plastic packaging. I can see the product but I can’t get to it before employing tools and cutting myself on the sharp plastic edge.
            Sometimes an old dog’s old tricks are more valuable than the new tricks you’re trying to teach it.
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