Beware the Instant Expert

In my home province of Alberta, a certain Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies has made a crusade of ending what she sees as mistaken educational reform and of returning to some notion of “the basics” in our classrooms. If nothing else she has demonstrated that by being aggressive and persistent an individual citizen can get the attention of local and national media, get invited to speak to public organizations and even get the ear of the Minister of Education. It’s been a fascinating PR exercise. Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies If you’d like to know more or to sign her petition you can catch her main points here. This whole odyssey began with concern over her daughter’s math homework. The issues are the basic “math wars” battles that I outlined in post in December, 2014. In short, students are often being taught a wide array of techniques—some efficient, some not—in an attempt to develop understanding of arithmetic and not just computational fluency. As I pointed out in the other post, the issues are deep and interesting, and are nowhere near resolved in the research literature. In short, no one knows how much computational fluency is needed or useful for students in the 21st century, and no knows how much students benefit from the attempts to teach for understanding in computation. Finally, the legitimate goals of elementary education in mathematics are not clear: what, exactly are we trying to have students do with their mathematics education? So back to Dr. Tran-Davies. Her daughter was apparently frustrated, Dr. Tran-Davies is a parent and a medical doctor, so she must know how to reform (deform?) mathematics education. Right? Yeah, right. Sure and armed with Google and Wikipedia, I can be a medical doctor too. Let’s be honest. As a parent, Dr. Tran-Davies has a legitimate interest in this discussion. As an educated woman, she has a particular interest and experience in education (but no more than someone who has had a different experience). As a citizen, Dr. Tran-Davies has a legitimate voice in the discussion. All absolutely without question. But why would the Minister or anyone else give her a privileged voice in this discussion? Here’s where the practical politics come into play. Dr. Tran-Davies found a sympathetic ear at the Edmonton Journal, in columnist David Staples. Staples doesn’t know crap about education or mathematics, if one is to judge from his columns. But that’s not his responsibility. Staples’s job is to attract readers, and by setting up the battle “upset Dr. Mom versus the mindless, ideological government ‘educrats’”, he found a winning combination. Thoughts and reasons make for boring commentary (which is probably what’s wrong with this blog) but anger and hyperbole sell papers. And of course papers influence voters. Which brings us to the real problem. The Edmonton Journal has privileged one person’s point of view. It’s an interesting point of view, but it’s uniformed and inexpert. But it’s good-looking, credentialed, articulate and ANGRY. So the minister listens. So the Ministry spends the past year disarticulating itself as it bends backwards to try to minimize the damage—acknowledge nothing, while working like mad to show that you care. It’s a pathetic sight. So what can we take away from this? IMO, Dr. Tran-Davies is rather like the anti-vaccine movement, the sincere climate change deniers, the churches opposed to evolution. It’s a democratic society: have at ‘er. But God help us if the uninformed change public policy just because they have a platform handed to them.

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