The future of fuzzy math rests on a bureaucratic fight in Washington, writes David Klein, a math professor, on Gadfly.
“Fuzzy math,” a philosophical sibling of whole language learning, refers to textbooks and school programs that intentionally de-emphasize basic arithmetic and algebra skills. At the elementary school level, these programs encourage students to invent their own arithmetic procedures, while discouraging the use of the traditional and far superior methods for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Calculator use is encouraged to excess — in some cases, they’re even included in kindergarten lesson plans, at precisely the age that students should be learning basic computational skills unaided. Student “discovery group work” is the preferred mode of learning, sometimes the only mode, and the discovery projects are almost invariably incoherent and aimless. Some of the elementary school fuzzy math programs do not even provide textbooks for students, as books might interfere with student discovery projects. Arithmetic and algebra are radically de-emphasized by these programs. In the higher grades, mathematical definitions and proofs are generally deficient, missing entirely, or even incorrect.
The administration wants to transfer math education from a pro-fuzzy agency in the National Science Foundation to a division in the Education Department, which is likely to be anti-fuzzy.