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When Will We Celebrate "Math Year"?

Germany has declared the year 2008 "Math Year," and is making a great attempt to improve the German public's view of mathematics. This event follows the German's success of celebrating the year 200 as the "Year of Physics."

"Mathematics. Everything that counts!" is the motto for this special year. Posters placed on vacant spaces declare: "You're better at math than you think."

And what are some of the the German's lessons learned (from which we might learn something or at least think about):

  • Mathematics is multi-faceted, and is much more than "learning to calculate"
  • Mathematics is difficult, and we should not sugar-coat it by saying it is easy, let alone making it easy (and stripping away the interesting parts)
  • When educating the public about mathematics, don't try to teach...rather success is measured by the number of new converts to thinking that mathematics is interesting
  • Don't focus on mathematics as merely an abstract subject...provide the press and public with real people (e.g. mathematicians, teachers, students) doing interesting mathematics that they can talk about
  • Make it a community effort to build broad conversations, as a top-down effort has limited effect
As a mathematics teacher, I can think of other lessons learned (or to be learned) and difficulties to overcome. For example, in the United States, we face the additional concerns of public attitudes towards education itself, the need for meaningful learning vs mastery of rote skills, parental attitudes of "old school" mathematics, the role of technology, etc.

And one final thought...the Math Year budget in Germany is approximately $10 million dollars! The United States needs to think about doing the same promotion, if it really wants to be proactive about improving mathematics education and attitudes about such.

What do we do in this country? In addition to some late night television and radio "spots" allocated to promoting mathematics, we do little more than listen to bickering amomgst a well-intentioned but uniformed public, a group of mathematicians who perhaps should keep their noses to the research griundstone rather than pretend they know how to teach mathematics to young students, administrators who are more focused on improving test scores than meaningful learning, govermental dictums that hinder rather than support educational progress, mathematics education researchers who seem to focus on the minute rather than the important, and mathematics teachers who are rarely listened to by anyone, including their students.

Enough of my soapbox oratory for now....

Source: Notices of the ACM, March 2008, p. 341