The answer isn’t teaching to ‘the test’

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What would you make of a billboard that reads: “{first ten-digit prime found in consecutive digits of e}.com.”?
You could have seen it recently on Highway 101, in the heart of Silicon Valley. And if you were a 20-something mathematician, you’d be able to figure out that the number in question is 7427466391, a sequence that starts at the 101st digit of e, the constant that is the base of the natural logarithm.
Figure it out, go to the Web site, and then there’s another, even harder, problem to solve. Solve it, go to the next Web page, and be invited to e-mail your resume to … Google!
Yup, it’s just a help-wanted ad.
It’s arcane, nerdy and impenetrable to all but a gifted few – the brilliant, quirky, math-obsessed folks who can maintain and expand Google’s market dominance. It’s more than a help-wanted ad – it’s a signpost, a message from the future that our kids need to be able to read, if this country’s prosperity is going to continue through the 21st century.
So let’s consider the state of public education. Is it well-adapted to challenging and cultivating the kids, who, a dozen years from now, will find such riddles laughably easy? No – not even close.
Ask any teacher and he or she will tell you that state and federal mandates (the Colorado Student Assessment Program, No Child Left Behind) require simplistic, repetitive, mind-numbing drudgery. The kids hate it; the teachers hate it; the administrators hate it; the parents don’t know what to think; and politicians … well, no one expects much from them, anyway.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe we should just plod along the same old path. Our most creative mathematicians and computer scientists are largely self-educated. And for everybody else – well, as a teacher friend cynically remarked “We’re training the next generation of Wal-Mart cashiers.”
But let me tell you a story, about a cool, creative and unconventional teacher that I was fortunate enough to encounter many decades ago as a ninth-grader.
On our first day of class, Mr. Brown went to the blackboard and wrote: “Prove that: there are no non-zero integers x, y and z such that xn + yn = zn where n is an integer greater than 2.”
Recognize it? It’s Fermat’s last theorem, the classic riddle of mathematics. Brownie took the rest of the period to explain it – and how, in its maddening simplicity, it had defied mathematicians for centuries.
“But,” Brownie said, “Someone will solve it one of these days – and win the Nobel Prize. So if any of you want to try, go ahead – and not only will you win the Nobel, you’ll get an A+ for the semester – and you can cut class.”
So for the next month, I thought about nothing but FLT (as math geeks, even then, called it). I asked Brownie for help – and he kindly pointed out that I needed to learn calculus, if I were to make any progress.
I got a textbook and tried to teach myself. Finally, I thought I had a solution, and presented it to Brownie. He was delighted – what I’d come up with was one of the classic non-solutions. We made a deal – I’d get an A, but I had to come to class – but I could do whatever I wanted.
Alas, I never became a mathematician, but I learned to love math. It didn’t seem like drudgery, it seemed like play, light and elegant, as sweetly satisfying as a Bach cantata.
Brownie’s unconventional methodologies would never cut it in today’s rigidly ordered classrooms. He wasn’t interested in the pain of learning, but in the joy of discovery. He didn’t have to worry about teaching to the test or complying with dozens of confusing, often contradictory, mandates handed down by politicians at every level.
Happily, there are other ways to connect to mathematics. There are competitions such as the one sponsored by Professor Alex Soifer at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, open to every student in the city, where kids of all ages try to solve four ingeniously constructed problems.
And there are video games (yes, video games), home computers and chess clubs – precisely the environments that nurtured today’s Internet magnates.
But school? Maybe Pink Floyd’s advice is best “Hey! Teacher! Leave us kids alone!”
Meanwhile, as our contentious Republican politicians (now there’s a sentence I never expected to write) get ready for tomorrow’s state assembly, the jostling and elbowing is getting a tad nasty.
Marc Holtzman is gleefully telling anyone willing to listen that Bob Beauprez dodged the Vietnam draft, while Beauprez loftily dismisses Holtzman as a delusional wannabe who’s never been elected to any office.
As a delighted Denver Democrat told me the other day, “They’re writing commercials for us!”
And right here in Colorado Springs, where a multi-candidate primary for Congressional District 5 is a virtual certainty, the desperate struggle for media attention has led Mayor Lionel Rivera down the primrose path.
For the last several weeks, the Greater Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp. and the city have been working together to craft a package of incentives that might dissuade the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association and Hall of Fame from moving to Albuquerque.
For obvious reasons, no one would talk about the specific incentives being offered. It’s just business negotiation 101 – you don’t talk until you have a deal. Premature publicity can only hurt – you give the folks in Albuquerque more time to respond, as well as tipping your hand to the PRCA.
Everyone involved understood that – except, it seems, the mayor, who spilled the beans to the Gazette last Friday (guess he doesn’t deem my newfound employer, whose primary focus just happens to be business and economic development, worthy of leaking information to). As a candidate, he got publicity, but at the cost of perhaps improperly using his current office to pump up his fledgling congressional campaign.
I called and left a message for the mayor in hopes of receiving an explanation, but he hasn’t seen fit to call me back. (By the way, see page 1 for how the board voted.)
And finally, if you’re impressed that I remembered the FLT theorem after so many years, don’t be…I just Googled it.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 634-3223.