Monday, April 21, 2014

Euclid is rolling over in his grave.

Standardized testing has killed geometry.  All that’s left to do is plan the funeral.  True, geometry had been ailing for some time and was too weak to put up a fight.  Still, theoretical mathematicians should pause for a moment of silence and then figure out what to do next.

The objective of geometry was never understood by most modern folks.  They tended to dismiss it as the study of “shapes” and to wonder why it was included in the curriculum.  But geometry was never about shapes.  Shapes were merely intended as the vehicle for making deductive reasoning more accessible to students.  Students tended to find formal proof to be very challenging, and as the self-esteem movement grew and grade inflation ran amuck, math teachers were under more pressure to gloss over the proofs that made the subject so difficult.  Eventually, many, if not most, high school students went off to college without ever having done a formal mathematical proof.

Still, geometry problems tended to involve informal deductive reasoning:  “I know these two lines are parallel, therefore these angles must be congruent.  If that’s true, then this thing is a parallelogram and these two line segments are congruent.”  In addition, geometry continued to be a class where you had to be careful and precise about how you talked about something.  Definitions were important.  Leave out a phrase, and everything changes.

The problem is that formal deductive reasoning can be difficult to test.  Informal deductive reasoning is easier to test, but requires a great deal of background knowledge about “shapes.”  Thus the layperson thinks that “shapes” was the concept being tested in the first place, and does anyone really need to remember that a midsegment of a triangle is half the length of the side to which it is parallel?

So now the Common Core Standards and the SAT have essentially gutted geometry from the curriculum.  Only the bits about shapes that are essential to trigonometry and to transformations (since there is an increased emphasis on graphing functions by transformations) have been kept. Formal definitions and proof are no longer included.  For true mathematicians this means that real math is no longer taught in kindergarten through 12th grade at all.  What’s left is just the arithmetic and modeling needed for science and statistics.  Where will our future mathematicians come from?

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