Friday, August 13, 2010

It's Spit Out Your Coffee Time

A new report says 70% of US students don't understand what the '=' (equals) sign stands for!

Huh? Even for math idiots like me, getting a firm grasp on what the '=' sign stands for in math was Math 101 in the 1st grade. Sister Hermann Melville at Our Lady of Good Council School made damned sure we understood the concept on day one before we were allowed to go to recess and compare lunch boxes (I had a really cool Steve Canyon lunchbox, btw).

When I first read this article I was set to launch on a blistering rant on the state of American math education. Just how dumb do you have to be to not understand what the '=' sign stands for? Before ranting I mentioned it to Roberta (you know, the one with the Masters in Mathematics Education). She piped up, "Hell yeah, it's a problem! These kids just don't get that it is a balance symbol. Most think of it is a function or execution symbol."

I considered her response for a moment or two and thought, well, maybe the problem really isn't with the kids. Then it struck me - the problem is calculators!

Stay with me here.

Kids are introduced to calculators at a very early age. Most get introduced to calculators in the classroom as early as the first grade. Roberta says it is only so they can verify the accuracy of their computations. Still, the syntax of the algebraic calculator is 'numeral / function / numeral / execute' (i.e., '2 + 2 ='). These kids see the '=' key not as a balance key, but as a function execution key. The teacher says the '=' symbol is a balance symbol; things on one side of the symbol must balance with (or equal) things on the other. However, the algebraic calculator tells them "punch the '=' key to get the answer".

Their little skulls full of mush are confused. Who can blame them? The only place they hear that the '=' symbol means balance is in the classroom, from a frustrated teacher who just wants to move on to an easier topic like lunch or PE. Outside of the classroom they see the '=' symbol used as a function execution key everywhere - computer keyboards, mobile phone keypads, ATMs, you name it.

So, the culprit here is the algebraic calculator (as pushed by the eeeevil Texas Instruments). What do we do to rescue millions of little skulls full of mush from their fundamental misunderstanding of the '=' symbol?

I say we give every kid in America an HP 35s calculator. That'll fix the problem.

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