DeTurck surveys math reforms

How is Johnny doing in calculus?

Not as well as he could be, according to Mathematics Professor Dennis DeTurck.

In a Provost’s Lecture Series talk April 12, DeTurck explained why calculus matters and gave a history of efforts to improve math teaching in elementary and secondary schools.

Opening with a clip from an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in which a child protests having to study the subject, DeTurck explained to the audience in Houston Hall’s Ben Franklin Room that calculus—“the mathematics of change”—is especially useful for making predictions, which are a key part of the scientific paradigm of observation, measurement, prediction and control. He went on to demonstrate the point, using three audience members and two pieces of rope to illustrate a calculus function known as the curl equation.

DeTurck then shifted to a tour of the forces that have shaped math education in American schools. The current arguments over the merits of factual drills vs. methods that emphasize thinking one’s way through problems—dubbed “the math wars” by some observers—are actually as old as ancient Greece, DeTurck said.

He noted that American educators have long been concerned that school children understand neither basic math principles nor why they work. Yet he termed one of the more notable efforts to focus on the why of math—the “new math” of the 1960s—“an abysmal failure.” DeTurck then broke into song, with piano accompaniment—a rendition of “New Math,” Tom Lehrer’s 1965 satire of the concept: “It’s so simple/So very simple/That only a child can do it!”

As efforts to reform math education raged around them, DeTurck went on to explain, many teachers simply continued doing what they have always done, sprinkling a bit of new math over traditional drills.

DeTurck concluded by mentioning some efforts at Penn to improve the quality of inner-city high school math and science teaching, including Access Science, a teacher-training program he heads.

Originally published on April 29, 2004