Today, let's teach math to our grandchildren. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
We face pedagogical trouble
today. Every time I speak to an audience, I get the
question, "How do we fight sagging math abilities
in our schools?" So first, let's try to understand
the problem. You and I did many things in school
that students no longer have to do. We memorized
poetry. We plotted graphs. We did arithmetic in our
heads. Books and radio were our entertainment.
Now the new electronic media pick up so many of
those functions. They remember for us. Not only do
they do the arithmetic, they solve differential
equations and they plot the graphs.
Just now I saw a TV spot about special effects in
the movie, Anaconda. A woman said,
"Because of computer graphics we can do so much
more. We can open up the imagination." But when she
makes an oversize serpent materialize, that does
less to open our imaginations than it does to show
us her imagination.
Consider how that works in teaching. We teachers
once memorized poetry, plotted graphs, did mental
arithmetic, imagined dragons, invented solutions to
calculus problems. But our students have not. We're
trying to share the hard-earned fruits of our own
imagination and memory. Students have calculators
(as we do), computers (as we do), and TV sets (as
we do.) But they lack our experience of life
without those things. All this high-tech is one
thing to us. It's something else entirely to them.
It's a delight for us when the computer creates
conic sections on the screen that look just like
objects we once visualized in our minds. But the
student who's seen them only on a screen is baffled
when we ask him to sketch diagonal sections of,
say, an airplane fuselage or a human skull -- items
that don't happen to be stored in the computer.
It's a delight for me when the computer hands me
the context of Shakespeare's line, "My library was
dukedom large enough." Prospero said that to his
daughter in The Tempest. He said it in
praise of the inner life he now led in his private
island world. But for students who never remembered
the line in the first place, the computer's ability
to find it is quite empty.
So we teachers face a formidable task. First we
have to reduce the two-dimensional screen back to
its proper role as a tool. It belongs in the
background. Then we have to find new means for
training the mind when we have at hand a machine
that can replace so much of the mental exercise you
and I used to grow strong.
We teachers and parents need to forget the novelty
of our computers. After all, they'll be as ordinary
to our children as the new cars and electricity
were in our lives. We need to find ways to walk
around our two-dimensional screens -- and to take
our children back to Prospero's rich
three-dimensional island of the mind.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds