Kids are taught math as pets are taught tricks. A dog has no idea why its master wants it to perform. With careful training many dogs can be taught to perform complex sequences of actions in response to various commands and cues. When a dog is taught to perform a trick it has no need or use for any “understanding” beyond which sequence of movements its trainer desires. The dog is taught a sequence of simple physical movements in a specific order to create an overall effect. In the same way, we teach children to perform a sequence of simple computations in a specific order to achieve an overall effect. The dog uses its feet to move about a space and manipulate objects; the student uses a pencil to move about a page and manipulate numbers. In most cases, the student doesn't know any more than the dog about the effect he creates. Neither has any intrinsic motivation to perform nor any idea why the performance is demanded. Practice, practice, practice, and eventually the dog can perform reliably on command. This is exactly how kids are trained to perform math: do a hundred meaningless practice problems, and then try to do the same trick on the test.
Matthew Brenner
Former Secondary Teacher
Four Pillars Upon Which the Failure of Math Education Rests
(and what to do about them)
Essay, 2011
