Mynah Bird Math
written by Paul Ziegler, Systematic Mathematics
I receive about 400 emails each month from home schooling parents looking for answers to their math education problems. Their letters go something like this:
“My son is in 7th grade and can’t seem to remember anything in math. He did well until the last 2 years. Suddenly he seems to have forgotten it all. Can you help us?”
The format and prevailing methods used in nearly all math courses, including material and methods used by home educators, promote a lot of activity with very little actual learning. This is not just my opinion. It is born out in test results and in the fact that it now takes five or six years to get a fouryear college degree. This is due, in part, to all of the remedial classes that must be taken in college to overcome the lack of knowledge of those entering from our secondary schools.
Let us examine the methods, together with the underlying philosophy of today’s math education. It is believed that the student needs to work many problems of the same kind in each assignment in order to insure that he knows how to do that particular kind of problem, and make it unlikely that he will forget it. The spiral approach also works on the idea that we don’t try to master any concept but rather introduce it, and then later, introduce it again and again. In this way, we are told, the student is exposed to the concept over a long period of time insuring that he will remember it. This is a great theory, except for the fact that it isn’t working.
Let’s see how this actually works. The student wants to get good grades because good grades mean that he is a good student. This means that he gets many compliments and everyone, including himself, believes that good grades mean that he has learned the subject well. The student learns that all of the problems on a given assignment are done the same way. He also learns that, if he watches very carefully, he can mimic the teacher and manipulate every problem in the same way, and get all or most of the problems right. So the student mimics the teacher each day and gets very good grades. The only problem with that method is that he has learned almost nothing. He is like the Mynah bird that mimics what he hears. People think that the bird has learned to talk when in fact; the Mynah bird isn’t talking at all. He is just reproducing sounds that he hears. You will never be able to carry on a conversation with the Mynah bird because he doesn’t know the meaning behind the noise that he is making.
In the same way, students manipulate math problems but don’t understand what they are doing. Like the Mynah bird, they don’t know the meaning of the material that they are working on, and are unable to use it in real life. Notice how young people answer you when you ask them if they can do a certain problem. They will say, “If you show me how, I can do it.” In other words, if you show me how, I can mimic what you show me. If asked, a week later to do the same problem, he will not know how. This is the reason why students are getting A’s and B’s in math and ending up mathematically illiterate.
Mindless repetition works well when training Mynah birds but is not the way to teach math to our children. If memorizing is the goal, then remembering is a problem. If understanding is the goal, the student can always figure out the method of achieving the solution. I am willing to concede that some who do Myna Bird Math can grasp it and end up doing okay. My concern is that there are very few alternatives to this approach available to educators, and that is why I started Systematic Mathematics.
A funny video showing how badly a math lesson
can actually go! 
