Why is it so hard to change math education?

Imagine you are asked to learn about something, and the only way someone can help you understand it is with words, because there are too few examples of it around to actually see it for yourself. You think you know what it is they are talking about, but you keep getting confused because your image of what it is seems so much different than what the other person is describing.

It gets worse because most of the other people you talk to haven’t really seen it before either, and are relying on a story they read about it once before in a book or occasionally on their attempts to tell the story to other people. They sometimes contradict each other, and then other people come in and start telling a totally different story. In fact you aren’t listening to just one story, but many different stories all at once.

When you were growing up the story you were told was pretty different. None of your friends or family knows this new story. In fact, you were never told this story in school or even university. You don’t even really understand why you are being asked to listen to this story because as far as you are concerned, the story you had growing up was a perfectly nice story. Why come up with a new story?

You try and tell the story yourself, but it turns out the story is so different from any stories you have ever heard that it is hard to remember all of it at the same time. You make a lot of mistakes telling the story and feel discouraged and decide you should just stick with your old story. It’s a lot easier to do, and virtually everyone you know seems to value it a lot. Gradually you stop trying to tell the story, and stick with the older story that you undersntand very well.


This description pretty much exactly summarizes a reason why I think math education is so hard to change. The narrative around the changes necessary is often just too different than people’s personal experiences of learning mathematics.





  • It’s very possible to change mathematics education with a group of like-minded people. That’s the first thought that came to my mind when I read the title, and your post is all about it… I just talked to one of the founders of Proof School yesterday. I’ve heard that story many times: a parent knows what makes his kid happy, gets some like-minded friends together, and they form a very innovative school, homeschool co-op, or another learning group.

    There is an ideal of diversity this seems to violate. But I don’t know if that ideal makes sense, given how it makes people involved feel…

    (Do I get automatically subscribed to comments?)

  • David Wees wrote:

    The issue of course is that I am not super-concerned about the educational outcomes when a group of like-minded people gets together and forms an educational cooperative of some kind. Almost regardless of the model of education, many of the children in those cooperatives will be successful (there are obviously some exceptions).

    Where my greatest concern lies is when the educational outcomes for students are bad and the different stake-holders involved in those outcomes do not make any changes. In this case, it is almost necessary for a diverse group of people to cooperate, possibly with some outside intervention. In this case, what I wrote above is very relevant.

    (No, you are not subscribed to comments, although I may change that given I have nearly zero spam comments now).

  • “In this case, it is almost necessary for a diverse group of people to cooperate, possibly with some outside intervention” – can people cooperate without becoming like-minded, at least about the target area of their cooperation? I am skeptical. I can see how a force that has already aggregated power and resources can make changes without consulting anyone else. But (non-coerced) cooperation requires a high degree of agreement.

  • David Wees wrote:

    I’ve re-enabled comment subscriptions, which is currently on by default.

  • Unfortunately “The new approach to math” is nowhere near the appeal of religion. Salvation is not on offer! The idea that anyone can be converted to the “new ways” as on the Road to Damascus, is optimistic, to say the least. Imposition of the new ways is a really bad mistake. The one to one conversion step by step has the best chance. It may take 20 years, but that is not a lot considering how long this problem has been around. Besides, nobody gets converted to anything unless they begin to see, and feel, the benefits, both to the kids AND to themselves.

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