Bring back the abacus

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By John Pawlak

It’s been a while since I’ve ranted about declining math skills in this country. Well yeah, OK, not really.
My wife just told me to stop lying and admit that it’s been about 12 minutes.  That’s what I get for marrying a woman who can tell time!
Los Alamos is joining the fray (or is that fracas?) among public schools across the nation and adopting a new assessment standard.  It’s called “Common Core State Standards (CCSS), an initiative to introduce consistency in educational processes.
At this time, CCSS has been adopted by 45 states. Texas has not yet adopted the standards. My guess is that state officials are waiting to see if the standards will mandate the teaching of creationism in math classes.
You know, something like this:
“And 6,000 years ago, Adam did marvel at the multitude of animals and did desire to counteth them.  And the Lord smileth upon his first math student and did create numbers!  And there was weeping and gnashing of teeth in the classroom.”
Now, I’m always amused to see how one decade’s experts criticize the previous decade’s experts on how to educate a child. CCSS is the new kid on the block and we’re expecting some exciting results.
But the question is, will CCSS turn the country around, generate job growth, eliminate the greenhouse effect, solve world hunger and cure cancer? Or even better, will it help us teach our children how to add?
As I read testimonies from educational experts assessing the assessors, I have to ask under what educational process did they themselves gain all this wisdom? How did such smart people come out of a system that they claim is totally broken?
It’s a metaphor of self-denial.
“Educational experts” scoff at memorizing multiplication tables and tout the use of computers and calculators as the panacea of educational success. They didn’t have all that technology when they learned math, but now they insist that you can’t learn mathematics without first learning how to push a button.
Well, I know a lot about math (and all without calculators!), but who am I to say what is best for promoting the learning of math?  I’m just a teacher.
What I do know is that math isn’t really about numbers. It’s about logic. It’s how to get from point A to point B, walking a maze of options and decisions to achieve a stated result.
It’s about how to think.
As we labor to develop students’ critical thinking skills, we find ourselves on the front lines of the most difficult task ever presented to civilization — how to teach a person to learn. How to guide a mind to learn how to learn.
By the way, speaking of “not” learning, the Texas GOP platform states “No more teaching of critical thinking skills in Texas public schools!”
So, where was I?
I always enjoy a good bet and so if anyone is up for a long term wager, here’s my prediction: In 10 or 12 years, some team of educational experts will make lots of money getting the districts to junk “that old system that doesn’t work” (you know, the one we’ll be implementing to replace the previous old system that didn’t work) and to adopt new standards, new teaching theories, new consultants to teach us how to apply the new standards and theories, and most importantly, new books!
Yes, new books.  The never-ending fountain of eternal revenue for people who never once walked into a classroom but are paid to tell us what works best for students.
But like I said, what do I know?  I’m just a teacher.
You’ll have to excuse my cynicism. I really do applaud the efforts of our district and state to address the need for improving the educational environment.
It’s a competitive world out there, and given that U.S. students rank 32nd among industrialized nations in math skills, we clearly need to do a better job preparing our children for the world we made for them so that they can make it a better world for their children.
It’s just that I’m a mathematician. I recognize patterns.
John Pawlak
Los Alamos Columnist