The Math Zombie Excuse


From an article about the Russian Math School:

“Meanwhile, Hilary Kreisberg, director of the Center for Math Achievement at Lesley University and a former fifth-grade teacher turned math coach, says her experiences with RSM students have led her to question the claim that Russian Math focuses more on developing a deep understanding of math instead of memorization. In fact, she has seen the opposite. “From what I’ve seen, they come in well above their grade-level standards in terms of memorization, but not in terms of content understanding,” she says. “Many of them very quickly get to an answer or can compute in a fast way, but they can’t necessarily explain to me what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.” And explanations, she says, are a critical component of mathematics. “In public school teaching, we are very strictly taught that the goal is not to accelerate,” Kreisberg says. “The goal is not to extend their thinking into another grade level, but to go deeper with the current grade-level standards because there’s always more you could learn about a topic.” “

There is no discussion in the article, or from the experts proclaiming math zombie-ism, of levels of understanding and how that figures into the novice/expert spectrum. The general excuse given for programs like RSM that are successful is “Well the kids are good at memorizing procedures but there is no deeper understanding.” The unanswered question is how deep is the understanding of the students who are supposedly benefiting from the “deeper understanding” approach the math reformers seem to think works so well? More to the point, how many of those in the “deeper understanding” category have to take remedial math in college compared to those from the RSM program?

And why is it that the US is lagging behind other nations (who used traditional techniques or those used by RSM) with all the “deeper understanding” the US students supposedly have? In articles I’ve read about reform methods, a common answer is “We’re just not doing reform math correctly.”  (See in particular this article, which received criticism for its inaccuracies.)

These are questions that need further delving. In my opinion, what passes for “deeper understanding” in the educationists’ realm, frequently amounts to “rote understanding.”



5 thoughts on “The Math Zombie Excuse

  1. ““Many of them very quickly get to an answer or can compute in a fast way, but they can’t necessarily explain to me what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.””

    Compared to which other kids?

    Where are all of these better understanding kids? Show me the college STEM programs they are in. None of these educators EVER answer these questions.

    “It’s because we’re not doing it right”.

    I’ve been waiting for more than 20 years!!! MathLand, then EverydayMath, but they aren’t complaining about them. All they do is haul out the arguments against traditional approaches that haven’t been seen in public K-6 schools in decades. And once again, they don’t account for all of the mastery work that now has to be done at home. As one of those parents, my hand is raised, but those educators are ignoring me. That’s because my son provides cover for their Everyday Math repeated partial learning.

    When will they realize that they really are, fundamentally, not doing it right?


  2. Former 5th grade teachers offer such a rich experience in mathematics understanding and application. It is unlikely that she has ever had a real math course for solved a the real math problem and yet she is responsible for the mathematics education of hundreds, maybe thousands, of students. Sin has many forms.


  3. I believe that RSM is, in some sense, consciously deprecating memorization for marketing reasons. It can afford this, since the kids come ready with it anyway, so they pretend that memorization is not important.

    A year back I published a report on RSM and Kumon.

    Nothing special, but here is RSM founder, Inessa Rifkin in that paper:
    “Russian methodology is absolutely against memorization,” Inessa Rifkin, founder of RSM, said in a video posted by AmericasBestTV. “We encourage problem solving. We work on developing critical thinking and reasoning skills. We build on a deep understanding of the material. It’s basically understanding versus memorization.

    And here is my footnote on that quote:
    It is worth observing that while Rifkin’s focus on abstraction and deep understanding is characteristic of RSM, her anti-memorization sentiments seem more a marketing attempt to distance RSM from the “rote memorization” insult tossed by public school educators against after-school programs than true anti-memorization feelings. After all, everything we know—understanding, reasoning, critical thinking and all that—is based on memorization. Even reading this footnote is based on rote memorization of letter shapes and letter-sound correspondences. Only fools ignore that, and Rifkin is certainly not a fool.


  4. Zeev, I believe the writer of this article borrowed heavily from your report. She even interviewed the same two people who featured prominently in it: Hilary Kreisberg from Lesley University and Jon Star from Harvard. Your report is also credited in the article.


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