This Quartz Post Going Viral Right Now Is Everything Wrong With Education Reform, Neoliberalism And America

God have mercy on all of us.

This post on Quartz is going viral right now on Twitter, and it is a perfect snapshot of everything that’s wrong with the worldview of a set of people. I just have to write it up. I only have half an hour.

It is wrong in a particularly pernicious and perverse manner, because it is actually filled with a lot of right and important stuff.

Right and important thing 1: hard work and diligence pays off!

Right and important thing 2: everyone has the capacity to learn math at at least a high school level (even French high school level, which is like a collegiate level in the US).

Right and important thing 2 is absolutely right and absolutely important.

Right and important thing 1 is also right and important, though the authors’ insistence that this constitutes some sort of bold, contrarian truth telling is…bizarre.

They are also absolutely right that our tendency to convince ourselves that we’re “not a math person” is both empirically wrong and absolutely disastrous at both an individual and a societal level.

But this is precisely why this post is so infuriating. It gets so much right, and yet it is so, so wrong.

Here is the pernicious problem with that post: its prescription for helping more kids learn math more better-er is… hard work!

Uh, no.

The reason why kids don’t learn more math better isn’t that they don’t work hard enough.

The reason is that math education is awful.

And the reason why math education is awful is because it is based on antiquated, awful 19th century principles.

Awful principles…that the authors of the article trot out as that which we should emulate!

The authors venerate East Asian education where the authoritarian focus is on hard work and perseverance through difficulty. The authors specifically endorse criticism and punishment as good ways to get kids to learn more math.

The problem with that is that it’s wrong. Not in the sense that it’s morally wrong, though it is, but in the sense that it is absolutely not the way to teach kids math, or anything else. The reason for that is that there is an overwhelming, abundant body of research that very very strongly suggests (if I was as rigorous as most pundits I would say proves) that the best determinant of learning is intrinsic motivation, not extrinstic motivation.

Do you want kids to learn math? Make learning math rewarding. Not with gold stars and grades and sticks and carrots.

This is true of all subjects, but it is particularly true of math. I’m going to assume the article’s authors were themselves “math people” and were schooled in the United States.

Since they appeal to their own personal experience, let me appeal to mine. I went to school in France, whose system is roughly as authoritarian and as math-focused as those in East Asian countries. And I was the prototypical “I’m not a math person” kid.

Here’s the thing—and it is bewildering to me that the authors won’t acknowledge this—if you want to learn a math subject and you’re “stuck”, no amount of “hard work” will help you. What will “unstick” you is being able to view the problem in a different light until you can “grok” it. The problem of math education in authoritarian systems is that it assumes that once a concept is explained, if you don’t succeed it’s because you’re not working hard enough. It’s like pushing at a door that says “PULL.” The problem isn’t that you’re not pushing hard enough.

For example, here’s how I was taught trig. I was taught to memorize the formulas to use to derive sines, cosines and tangents. Because I am a human being (worse, at that point, I was a preteen human being) I found it very hard to memorize these things that I didn’t understand. I was stuck. I had terrible grades.

But I was lucky enough to have a tutor, who actually not only had a solid grounding in mathematics but tutorial skills, and this tutor explained to me the unit circle. Once you understand the unit circle, all of trigonometry magically falls into place. Deriving sines and cosines and tangents doesn’t just become possible, it becomes pleasurable.

You could have said that my problem wasn’t that I wasn’t working hard enough because, well, maybe if you’d whipped me enough I would have memorized the formulas (in my specific case, I highly doubt it, but in the case of most people, maybe). But the real problem was that I had been taught trigonometry wrong.

Of course, an emphasis on rote memorization without thinking is one of the hallmarks of traditional authoritarian schooling. And it’s bullshit.

Let me give you another story. When I was in 7th grade, instead of doing homework, I watched Star Trek. Because dubbing in France is terrible, I watched it in English. And because I watched a lot of Star Trek (because I was a huge nerd), I quickly found myself able to speak English.

Now, I had English class in school, during which I mostly dozed. One common test was a quizz on irregular English verbs, of which there are plenty. Because I “wasn’t” “studying” English—like an idiot, all I was doing was learning it—most of the time I didn’t get a perfect score on those quizzes. More like 80-90%. Meanwhile I had a classmate who learned all of the forms of the irregular verbs by heart. He got 100% every time. And I still remember, petty soul that is mine, the burning pride and jealousy I felt when, each time the teacher would hand in the test results, I got some backhanded compliments and he got effusive praise. Of course, he couldn’t string an English sentence together. But hey, he got better grades than me! I guess he won in the end.

Using math as an analogy to speaking English, what we want is not kids who can recite irregular verbs, but kids who can hold a conversation. Even after “grokking” trig, I bet if you’d timed me doing problem sets next to a kid who’d memorized everything, I would do worse because I would probably start by scribbling a unit circle and re-deriving everything before applying the formulas. But as anyone who’s done math in a serious way knows, the latter is actually an infinitely better way. Of course, if you want to, at that point you work hard so that the rederiving becomes essentially muscle memory and becomes easier. But the key thing is the grokking. And if you have the grokking, the motivation to do the hard work will come easy.

The reason why this post is so awesomely, perversely wrong (despite being so right in some key ways!) is because it fails for the same reason “education reform” fails, which is that it fails to question the basic structure of how “education” is done in most modern countries, a way which is just contrary to how research says the learning mind works—didactic and extrinsic.

This is the problem of neoliberalism in a nutshell. To grossly oversimplify, while conservatism says “the poor suck, and they deserve it” and liberalism says “the poor are awesome”, neoliberalism says “the poor suck, and it’s not their fault” If only we could explain to minorities the value of hard work through targeted intervention and tweaking the incentive pay of teachers! Then they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do some linear algebra. Give me a break.

The authors start from a very good finding of fact (hard work pays off in life! Everyone can learn math!) to recommendations that make education worse like more authoritarianism, more homework, and so forth.

“Treat people who work hard at learning as heroes and role models.” LOL.

And the tragedy is that we already have very good ways of teaching kids, but we just pretend they don’t exist.

Think of replacing pi with tau as the circle constant.

Think of the flipped classroom.

Think of this clever binomial equation hack.

Think of the Montessori algebraic cubes.

Man, if only there could be a method, field tested, to teach kids math.

Oh wait, there is, and the authors seem completely innocent of it. It is called the JUMP Math curriculum, and from what I’ve seen, it Just. Works. Of course, its philosophy doesn’t say what the authors of that article pretend at all.

Of course, the authors could be excused for not having heard of JUMP Math, because society as a whole seems to be engineered to hide education alternatives and to be allergic to experimentation overall. Even though the lack of bottom-up experimentation is why education is so awful to begin with.

PS: If all I’m saying is true, how come kids from East Asian countries score so well in math?????? Because whipping people works to some extent. Kids at one end of the distribution will do better in math. Of course, kids at the other end will kill themselves. Yay!