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Elegance with substance

Colignatus, Thomas (2009): Elegance with substance. Published in: Dutch University Press No. ISBN 978 90 3610 138 7 (12. June 2009): pp. 1-112.

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Abstract

National parliaments around the world are advised to each have their own national parliamentary enquiry into the education in mathematics and into what is called ‘mathematics’. Current mathematics namely fails and causes extreme social costs.

The failure in mathematics and math education can be traced to a deep rooted tradition and culture in mathematics itself. Mathematicians are trained for abstract theory but when they teach then they meet with real life pupils and students. Didactics requires a mindset that is sensitive to empirical observation which is not what mathematicians are basically trained for. When mathematicians deal with empirical issues then problems arise in general. The stock market crash in 2008 was caused by many factors, including mismanagement by bank managers and failing regulation, but also by mathematicians and ‘rocket scientists’ mistaking abstract models for reality (Mandelbrot & Taleb 2009). Another failure arises in the modelling of the economics of the environment where an influx of mathematical approaches causes too much emphasis on elegant form and easy notions of risk but insufficient attention to reality, statistics and real risk (Tinbergen & Hueting 1991). Errors by mathematicians on realistic assumptions have important consequences for civic discourse and democracy as well (Colignatus 2007). The failure in math education is only one example in a whole range.

The discussion of mathematics in this book can be understood by anyone with a decent command of highschool mathematics. While school math should be clear and didactically effective, a closer look shows that it is cumbersome and illogical. (1) This is illustrated with some twenty examples from a larger stock of potential topics. (2) Additional shopping lists for improvement on both content and didactic method can be formulated as well. (3) Improvements appear possible with respect to mathematics itself, on logic, voting theory, trigonometry and calculus. (4) What is called mathematics thus is not really mathematics. Pupils and students are psychologically tortured and withheld from proper mathematical insight and competence. Other subjects, like the education in economics, biology or physics, suffer as well.

Application of economic theory helps us to understand that markets for education and ideas tend to be characterized by monopolistic competition and natural monopolies. Regulations then are important. Apparently the industry of mathematics education currently is not adequately regulated. The regulation of financial markets is a hot topic nowadays but the persistent failure of mathematics education should rather be high on the list as well. It will be important to let the industry become more open to society.

When you want to understand the underlying historical processes that cause the current state of the world then this is the book for you. Mathematics education must be tackled, both as a noble goal of itself and for the larger causes.

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