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Finding Unity in the Math Wars (betterexplained.com)
101 points by kalid 1914 days ago | hide | past | web | 21 comments | favorite

Some really nice suggestions in the article that for whatever reason are not often brought up while discussing maths education.

A good way to bootstrap the "math avengers" website would be to get people to write up running commentary to some classic maths texts, e.g. Silvanus Thompson (out of copyright), Halmos, Rudin etc.

Essentially all high school maths programs are less than great to put it politely and often created by people with rather limited appreciation of the subject. Better university textbooks are not readily accessible without an instructor. Running commentary from several authors giveing additional motivation, examples, clarifications or alternative derivations can be of great help to students and wikipedia style platform can be great for organising such a project.

Sites like wikipedia and mathoverflow / stackexchange are great for specific questions but lack structure - centering the efforts around certain "canonical" texts can help to organise the material which otherwise would be overwhelming.

Thanks for the ideas. Exactly, something like running commentary / different approaches could work. I greatly prefer text to online videos [not sure why, I think I get impatient that I can't read at the exact speed I want?] and would go through those.

Wikipedia is self-described as a reference [not teaching tool], stackexchange is good for point-fixes [q&a], but some more "guided tour" could be useful. Especially to help appreciate math as an art/journey vs. pure problem solving.

There are no "Math Wars!"

There is only the Khan Academy, doing great stuff, and a group of disgruntled, jealous math teachers such as the author of this post, who have levied silly, petty, baseless criticisms against the Khan Academy.

After launching the silly criticisms and stirring up a little controversy (but by no means a "war"), they now want to cast the whole hullabaloo as a "war" because it glorifies their role in the whole thing.

It's like a flea trying to recast his battle against the St. Benard he rides on as a "war."

Khan Academy is doing great stuff, and getting great results right now. If you're a jealous math teacher who thinks you have better answers, then quit spewing a bunch of FUD-like rhetoric with no substance, and fucking DO SOMETHING to help some people learn math right now. If what you do is so much better than Khan Academy, then it will become obvious in short order.

P.S. And by "help some people learn math right now", I don't mean your day job as a teacher/professor. Do something that helps improve the effectiveness of math education on a grand scale ... as Khan Academy is doing.

P.P.S. The whole thing makes me grumpy as hell, and I'm sure that comes out. But the reason is this -- if the "math teachers" side of this "war" is so all-fired passionate about disrupting the status quo and raising the overall quality of math education in the world, then why on Earth would you take potshots at Khan Academy, who is doing so much towards that very goal??! If that truly was your goal, you'd celebrate and help. I think the potshots show that the greater motivation is jealousy that some outsider has gotten so much more traction on the problem so quickly.

Hi. I appreciate the comments and if you're open to it, I'd like to understand your point of view.

The "Math Wars" actually reference a longstanding struggle about math education in the US (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Math_wars). That allusion is more apparent to people in the field however.

I thought I gave the debate a fair and nuanced treatment and I'm curious to see what specific points are silly or baseless. If it helps, I actually ran the essay by an online buddy at Khan Academy and he liked the tone and focus on solutions. So I'm very confused where your offense is coming from.

I totally agree Khan Academy is doing great stuff right now (I recommend them often). Other educators are as well. The problem is the entire movement is not cohesive, and the entire online learning movement is losing the attention battle against individual pop stars.

I don't believe quantity is a direct proxy for quality (see said pop stars), but if it helps: I've written among the most popular online tutorials for exponents, natural log, imaginary numbers, introduction to calculus, Bayes's theorem, Euler's theorem, radians, combinations and permutations... [just google for any of those topics]. They've collectively reached many millions of people and are used in dozens of courses.

OK, I appreciate your openness to understanding my point of view. I will articulate/respond respectfully.

First, some quick points:

1. I must apologize for misinterpreting "Math Wars". I though it was referring to the recent little "skirmishes" between certain math professors and Khan Academy (as found here, for example: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/khan-a...)

2. Your tutorials sound fantastic. I haven't had the pleasure of working through them, but they certainly sound like they are raising the level of worldwide math education.

So, before I go any further, let me ask -- are you at all entangled with (or even on the periphery of) the skirmish referred to by the link I posted above, between Mathalicious founder Karim Kai Ani and Khan Academy? Or the skirmish triggered by some of Frank Noschese's criticisms, as in http://fnoschese.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/you-khant-ignore-h... ?

The reason I ask is because this is what I (perhaps mistakenly) though you were referring to, and it is many of these criticisms that I feel are baseless and petty.

If those criticisms really have nothing to do with your current post or even your current mental outlook, then all that's left for me to do is apologize for jumping to conclusions and getting overheated for something that has nothing to do with you.

If those criticism are relevant to your posting and current outlook, then perhaps it would make sense for me to continue onward by listing those criticisms that I feel are baseless. If so, I will proceed.

Hi Charlie,

Really appreciate you taking the time to explain. I strive to understand people's point of view, especially when they disagree, because there's probably some insight or viewpoint I'm missing.

Nope, I'm not personally involved in any of the current incidents but have been asked several times (privately) to comment. I see the current debate over Khan Academy as the latest unfortunate incident in the general Math Wars which have consumed much of the education community's attention [I'm not a formal teacher, just a programmer who likes math, and wants to explain things as I wish they were taught to me. I'd really appreciate any feedback if you get a chance to read any tutorials].

I agree that some silly arguments have been made (on both sides of the debate) and when egos get involved, tensions rise and it's hard to work towards a common understanding.

So, not personally involved, and that said -- I'd still be interested in hearing your thoughts if I've made unfair statements in the essay!

OK, then to sum this up quickly:

1. I was wrong in lumping you in with the criticisms others have made of KA, and I apologize.

2. My mistake came from the term "Math Wars" in the title, followed immediately by your link referencing the "skirmishes", which points to those criticisms that I find so baseless. Not knowing that "Math Wars" is actually a specific term, I concluded that the wars were the Khan Academy skirmishes you linked to. I think a decent percentage of your readers might make a similar mistake, so maybe this can help you clarify your post.

3. I didn't see anything I'd call unfair in the essay. You don't explicitly say that Kahn is a "bad teacher", but you might be implying it. If so, I disagree and many others would too, but I don't know that the claim is unfair.

4. I really can't wait to dig into some of your tutorials. The desire "to explain things as I wish they were taught to me" sounds very promising.

OMG! After ALL THIS, I flipped over to glance at some of your tutorials, and what do you know ...



In particular, a few years ago on a snowy day I dug into the imaginary number tutorial, which I found to be fantastic. I had learned about them in school, of course, but never to the depth that you explained them.

I was actually doing some hobby reading on quantum physics, and needed a good review of imaginary numbers. Your tutorial was all that and more. I even tweeted "Imaginary numbers have the rotation rules baked in: it just works."

Small world. Pleased to have had a conversation with you, even if it did start with me misunderstanding you and harping at you for no reason.

Haha, what a small world! Happy to have the conversation too -- in my years as a blogger, I've realized many disagreements just boil down to misunderstandings.

Glad if it was able to help you get into quantum, that topic has been on my to-study list for a while.

Do me a favor, and write a good intro to Category Theory! (I'm shutting down my laptop and going to bed, and I saw all the Category Theory tutorials I currently have open in other browser tabs).

Thanks for the suggestion - that's been on my topic list for a while! So much math I want to learn :).

1. No worries, apology more than accepted :).

2. Good call. Math Wars is the longstanding problem, these skirmishes are the latest battle. Definitely not clear to the unfamiliar reader. I'll have to think how to reword it.

3. Thanks for the clarification. I write "Bad Teacher < Online Learning < Good Teacher" in the sense that a static video [or article] can't react to your confusion, explain a different way, etc. the same way an in-person teacher can. But Khan is in no way a bad teacher, and is probably in the 90th percentile of math teachers (probably the 99th percentile in terms of math background, after doing all the lessons for Khan Academy).

4. Awesome! You might like the following article on imaginary numbers, there was a great discussion on HN: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2712575

On point three, that confused me for a moment when reading. It would help to lead by specifying that it's an inequality.

Thanks, I need to clarify that part.

Have you checked the "Articles" section on betterexplained.com? Clearly the author of the article is trying to put his ideas into practice - not perfect but rather helpful in fostering something like actual understanding of topics that are all too often presented as a sequence of rote manipulations (more or less all of K12 and many "service" university courses follow this).

dvse, see my response to kalid. I thought "Math Wars" was a reference to a specific set of criticisms levied against Kahn Academy recently, when perhaps it was not a reference to that at all. If so, the whole thing could be a misunderstanding on my part. Waiting for kalid to clarify.

Disclaimer: I am not a math (or any other) teacher. I am trained as a teacher however.

  > Khan Academy is doing great stuff,
Putting some videos of poor quality (technically and from the teaching point) does not "great stuff" make. It may be helpful to some, though.

  > and getting great results right now. 
Care to qualify, what those "great results" are and how the greatness is determined?

I repeat myself: I am not a jealous teacher. I am just sad that KA is so overhyped and will have very little impact on education.

How many times should it be said: when the problem is not technology, you won't save it with technology.

And if someone wants invent effortless learning he then can start looking for philosopher's stone as well.

"Putting some videos of poor quality (technically and from the teaching point) does not "great stuff" make."

That's ridiculous. Sure you can find some errors if you look hard. But overall, the videos are excellent. Many, many people have left comments saying how much the videos have helped them learn things they had previously struggled with. You want to label the whole work as "poor quality", which makes it obvious you're not being objective or rational.

"Care to qualify, what those 'great results' are and how the greatness is determined?"

Real people, who say they previously struggled with a concept or a topic, and now, thanks to these videos, they've had breakthroughs. (I'm sure there are other measurable results we could list as well, but this one is enough to shoot down your claims).

"I am just sad that KA is so overhyped and will have very little impact on education."

I completely agree that it is overhyped. I'm not sure it will have a huge impact on education ... only time will tell. But it is a fantastic asset that the world did not have until recently, and it has a chance to turn out to be significant.

"when the problem is not technology, you won't save it with technology"

True. But technology makes new things possible, and allows disruptions to occur. It is often a catalyst.

Sorry, I'm not usually a pain with comparisons but comparing "Super Bass: 268M views in a year; Khan Academy: 175M views in 5 years" is illogical as Super Bass, from my quick Googling is around a song lasting 2m30s to Khan Academy which probably on average has around 10-20minute videos.

This doesn't even go into the fact that people could easily passively listen to Super Bass in a non-active window while Khan Academy requires much more active watching from the user.

(i.e. I could have super bass on my iPad in my car while I drive somewhere as background noise but Khan Academy requires me to be sitting in front of my PC focused on it).

Yeah, it's mostly a tongue-in-cheek comparison :). The meta-point is that the entire online learning space has a small fraction of society's collective attention, scraping by against the popularity of a rap artist who will be forgotten in a few years.

Curation isn't the answer. It's just cute and it has a pretty interface. But it's like ice cream against a nuclear holocaust. There is no silver bullet. The big issue is that just can't deny the role of parents in the education problem.

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