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Math education time capsule: Q&A with Jeremy Kilpatrick.

Q: Why will educators want to read A History of School Mathematics?

A: Anyone who teaches mathematics needs some sense of how we got the curriculum we have and where today's issues in school mathematics originated. Teachers should know how the roles of the state and federal governments have changed, how textbook adoption processes have evolved, and how standardized mathematics testing emerged. The U.S. school mathematics curriculum appears to have changed much more slowly than that of other countries, so it's helpful to understand where we have been and why change appears to have been so difficult.

Q: How do you hope the book will be used?

A: I hope administrators will encourage teachers to read chapters on topics of interest--topics such as the story of the standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, pedagogy in mathematics textbooks, the teaching of mathematical modeling or the emergence of computing technology--and discuss those chapters in department meetings or as part of their continuing professional development. Every chapter has something illuminating to say about how teachers of mathematics might think about their practice.

Q: This work was 10 years in the making. Can you shed some light on the history of that process?

A: For the most part, the editorial panel chose topics and invited authors, but we also issued several calls for chapter proposals. We either suggested reviewers or let authors choose their own, and some authors chose co-authors as well. George Stanic, the principal editor, and I worked so hard at the editing process. I always thought I was a painstaking editor, but George makes me look like a bungler. I won't say we discussed every comma and semicolon, but we talked about many of them. And we did a lot of questioning of claims and checking for accuracy.

Q: What do you think will surprise educators most about the history of math education?

A: My [university] students sometimes act as though the field didn't exist before they entered it. So I think educators reading the volumes will be surprised at how often our professional forebears had to deal with issues just like those we face today. The only thing that surprised George and me was that, even in 1,800 of so pages, our authors haven't begun to say all that could be said about the scope and complexity of our field's history.

Q: You describe the work as "an incomplete but honest history of the struggle to understand the role of mathematics in the education of human beings." What struggles of the past intersect with the present?

A: The greatest struggle of the past--and the present--concerns why we teach mathematics. The answer most people would give is that mathematics is useful. But that hides the clash between the school's promise to students--study mathematics and you'll get a high-paying, high-status job where you'll use mathematics--and the reality of the adult world which needs many workers for jobs that neither use much mathematics, pay much, nor have high status. A limited focus on usefulness also has problematic consequences for how mathematics is taught.

Q: In what ways might the history of mathematics education predict the future of this field?

A: As we say in the book's preface, the past doesn't allow for easy predictions about the future. History can, however, suggest some ways to make the future different than it might otherwise be. For example, even those concerted attempts to unify the mathematics curriculum in the early 1900s and to modernize it in the 1950s and 1960s yielded only surface, temporary or localized changes. Then, as today, attempts to implement reform have largely ignored the wider social, political and economic context. Rather than predict the failure of current reform efforts, I would instead hope that knowing the history of school mathematics can help us create a better future.

Jeremy Kilpatrick is a regents professor in the department of mathematics education at the University of Georgia. He is co-editor of A History of School Mathematics (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2004).
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Title Annotation:Curriculum update: the latest developments in math, science, language arts and social studies
Author:Kilpatrick, Jeremy
Publication:District Administration
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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