A Modest Proposal: Soqme

By Dr. Eugene Maier

The past few days' electronic mail brought three messages, all of a similar vein.

A teacher reported his experiences when, earlier in his career, he was involved in a peer teacher setting. "It was so exciting," he said, when students who had worked with base ten pieces were able to see base ten representations of two digit multiplications in their mind's eye and find the products in their head. "Unfortunately," he continues, "the teacher always wanted the students to learn the algorithm even after seeing how the student really understood the math that was taking place. They were afraid that the teacher the next year would think they didn't do their job if the student didn't know how to do the long paper and pencil method of multiplication."

Another teacher was involved in a workshop with the math staff of a middle school. He reports: "During one particular session, the issue of calculators came up and the teachers shared their frustrations with the kids mindlessly reaching for calculators to do every type of computation, including single digit. Rather than examine why they were doing that and examine ways to empower kids to think for themselves, I find it interesting that they blamed the calculator itself as the culprit. Consequently, midway into the school year, after kids had unrestricted use of calculators in their math and science classes up to that point, the staff and administration agreed to ban calculators and their use in schools! I was incredulous! ...What is it going to take to really, truly change things?"

The third communication, actually a series of communications over a period of four days, came from a teacher in the throes of textbook adoption. The first message reported that the middle school math department had not been able to get the approval of the School Board to use the materials they had chosen. "It gets pretty comical," she says, "because the board has no idea what is in any of the books, they just know that if we suggest the best book comes in little booklets and is not in hard cover, it cannot be good. We were told yesterday that our middle school is too advanced and we need to wait for elementary and high school to catch up with us. What they don't know is that we are not near where we want to be."

The second message was a report on how well her students had performed on the American College Test and an alert that a fax was on its way. The fax was a letter to the editor printed in the local paper under the heading The Public Speaks. The tone of the lengthy letter is captured by the following excerpt: "The key phrase for education should be 'repetition, repetition, repetition.' Anyone who has ever successfully coached a winning team will tell you that practice consisted of the repetition of basic skills. That's exactly what our children need in any math class."

The third in the series of messages was a report of the School Board's action: "The vote was 11–2... against [the department's choice]. Their minds were made up before they even walked into the board room. It is pretty scary that after many hours of studying the board can make a textbook decision based on ignorant parents... It is just very hard understanding why people can't see the value of what we are doing."

In pondering the imponderable questions raised by these messages, it occurred to me that the problem might be us rather than them, that we might be addicted to the reaching of unreachable goals. So to deal with this addiction and bring us back to earth, I propose the formation of an organization with the acronym SOQME, pronounced 'sock-me' and standing for the Society of Quixotic Mathematics Educators.

Membership is open to all those who are idealistic enough to believe that curriculum decisions are based on student understandings and not on some misguided rationale for teaching a particular algorithm. Or that student displays of mindlessness in the mathematics classroom has something to do with their interactions with other human beings, foremost of whom is the teacher, rather than their interactions with a machine. Or that school board members make decisions based on an enlightened view of what constitutes mathematical literacy rather than the appeasing of misinformed patrons.

Training in windmill jousting is available after school in the athletic practice field behind the high school.