The Medical School as a model for education

In Medical Schools, doctors are trained while doing both research and treating patients. Theory and practice go hand in hand. We should have the same for education. Teachers should get their training while doing theory and learning to teach, without having to leave the building. When graduated, teachers might teach at plain schools, but keep in contact with their alma mater, and return on occasion for refresher updates.

Some speak about a new education crisis in the USA. The above seems the best solution approach. It is also a model to reach all existing teachers who need retraining. Let us now look at the example of mathematics education.

Professor Hung-Hsi Wu of UC at Berkeley is involved in improving K12 math education since the early 1990’s. He explains how hard this is, see two enlightening short articles, one in the AMS Notices 2011 and one interview in the Mathematical Medley 2012. These articles are in fact remarkably short for what he has to tell. Wu started out rather naively, he confesses, but his education on education makes for a good read. It is amazing that one can be so busy for 30 years with so little success while around you Apple and Google develop into multi-billion dollar companies.

Always follow the money, in math education too. A key lesson is that much is determined by textbook publishers. Math teachers are held on a leash by the answers books that the publishers provide, as an episode of The Simpsons shows when Bart hijacks his teacher’s answers book. As a math teacher myself I tend to team up with my colleagues since some questions are such that you need the answers book to fathom what the question actually might be (and then rephrase it properly).

At one point, the publishers apparently even ask Wu whether he has an example textbook that they might use as a reference or standard that he wants to support. The situation in US math education appears to have become so bad that Wu discovers that he cannot point to any such book. Apparently he doesn’t think about looking for a UK book or translating some from Germany or France or even Holland or Russia. In the interview, Wu explains that he only writes a teacher’s education book now, and leaves it to the publishers to develop the derived books for students, with the different grade levels, teacher guides and answers books. One can imagine that this is a wise choice for what a single person can manage. It doesn’t look like an encouraging situation for a nation of 317 million people. One can only hope that the publishers would indeed use quality judgement and would not be tempted to dumb things down to become acceptable to both teachers and students. In a world of free competition perhaps an English publisher would be willing to replace “rigour” by “rigor” and impose the A-levels also in the US of A.

In my book Elegance with Substance (2009) I advise the parliaments of democratic nations to investigate their national systems of education in mathematics. Reading the experience by Wu suggests that this still is a good advice, certainly for the US.

About the subject of logic, professor Wu in the interview p14 suggests that training math teachers in mathematical logic would not be so useful. He thinks that they better experience logic in a hands-on manner, doing actual proofs. I disagree. My book A Logic of Exceptions (1981, 2007) would be quite accessible for math teachers, shows how important a grasp of formal logic is, and supports the teaching of math in fundamental manner. The distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions, for example, can be understood from doing proofs in geometry or algebra, but is grasped even better when the formal reasons for that distinction are seen. I can imagine that you want to skip some parts of ALOE but it depends upon the reader what parts those are. Some might be less interested in history and philosophy and others might be less interested in proof theory. Overall I feel that I can defend ALOE as a good composition, with some new critical results too.

Thus, apart from what parliaments do, I move that the world can use more logic, even in elementary school.

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