The math education revolution

Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive

Kids' math scores have stopped going up. They have plateaued.

Before we cue the politicians, however, let's look at what might be done if math teachers started making use of open source tools that already exist.

The 1990s featured the launch of a host of CDs that turned early grade math into a game, complete with cartoon characters. I reviewed many with my kids, who were then just starting school.

This decade has been marked by the growth of a host of open source programs aimed at teaching higher math skills, from algebra to calculus.

What we need are decisions by states and school districts to support these programs, and the training of teachers who, like my own brother Carl (right), use charisma to keep kids' attention, and depend on their own skill to bring the lessons home.

Take GeoGebra, for instance. Please. The Australian government of New South Wales recently loaded this program onto PCs given all the state's rising 9th graders.

Teachers there now know their kids have this program, which uses the visual appeal of geometry to teach a variety of other subjects, even calculus. They can develop lesson plans around the program, and all the contributions of both teachers and students can go into a commons, where kids in Indiana can benefit.

Or consider SageMath. This is a GPL program that aims to replicate pricey programs like Mathematica and Matlab, using an interface derived from open source Python.

What this delivers is transparency. Teachers and even kids can make additions to SageMath, learning Python in the process, and these improvements too go into a commons.

If you don't like either of these programs, there are many others with names like Axiom, GINACMacauley2 and Symmetrica. Each has a global community behind it. Your kids could be working right now with kids in Germany or Australia or Brazil, because math needs no translation.

The problem with those older CDs was that each year brought a new upgrade, with better graphics, requiring a faster PC.

These programs are available to anyone with a broadband connection. They can be loaded on a server and delivered to every classroom in your school, by this time tomorrow. Use the lessons that come with them, then encourage your kids to create new ones.

Math isn't fun for many reasons. Society does not do enough to encourage it. We don't pay great math teachers enough -- Carl should be living in a mansion for the work he does.

But here is a modest proposal, something you can do right now as a parent, a teacher, as a school, as a school district or through your state.

Choose one of these programs. Have your most computer-savvy math teacher download it and play with it a little. Bring a copy into your school's server. Develop some lesson plans. Have that teacher train other teachers. You might wind up having some of your juniors and seniors training teachers, and mentoring younger students.

Build your own math community around any of these programs. Unlike those old CDs these programs are not going away. They will improve, and those improvements will be freely available to you. (Did I mention there is no charge for using an open source program?)

Let's make math fun again. That's a revolution we can all get behind.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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