Lockhart’s Lament (Seguin’s response)

I just read Meusebach’s post on Lockhart’s paper on mathematics education.  As someone who will be teaching high school math in the near future I feel like I should make my critique.  In many ways I agree with Lockhart.  Mathematics education as I remember it sucks all of the creativity and artistry out of mathematics.  I hated math class all through middle and high school and I never excelled in the subject like I did with History and English.  It was not until college forced calculus on me, did I actually enjoy the subject.  I realized that math was not a spirit crushing exercise in monotony.  In my classroom, one of my overarching though nebulous goals is to show that math is not a game of following directions, but as creative as poetry, art, and music.

However I disagree with Lockhart on a number of points.  First he asserts that the true value of mathematics is its artistry.  This is wrong.  Mathematics is valuable because it is extremely practical.  The labor market makes this fact painfully clear.  Simply compare the salaries of mathematicians, engineers, statisticians, economists, and actuaries to careers that do not require the same quant skills.  The market rewards quantitative reasoning very well.  In fact one of the most accurate predictors of lifetime income is the number of math courses a person has taken.  Math may be beautiful because it is the art of reasoning, but it is valuable because it can do a lot of good to the world around us.

Furthermore, Lockhart doesn’t understand the challenge of teaching, or teaching math specifically.  He writes:

Teaching is not about information.  It’s about having an honest intellectual relationship with
your students.  It requires no method, no tools, and no training.  Just the ability to be real.  And if
you can’t be real, then you have no right to inflict yourself upon innocent children.
In particular, you can’t teach teaching.  Schools of education are a complete crock.  Oh, you
can take classes in early childhood development and whatnot, and you can be trained to use a
blackboard “effectively” and to prepare an organized “lesson plan” (which, by the way, insures
that your lesson will be planned, and therefore false), but you will never be a real teacher if you
are unwilling to be a real person.

Lockhart demonstrates the common misconception that teaching is simply an exercise in engagement.  Teaching is damn hard.  Students do not walk in as eager pupils ready to learn for the pure sake of learning.  The vast majority do not want to be there, and would leave at the drop of a hat if given the chance.  One of the most difficult challenges for teachers is not figuring out how to “be real” but getting control of their classrooms.  Lockhart’s brand of teaching describes an organic discussion where topics are introduced as they are discovered.  It sounds great and very Dead Poets like, but it is completely unworkable in a real classroom.  To say that all lessons are to be improvised  is like saying an essay should be written as a stream of consciousness.  In fact, the data is very clear that the best teachers meticulously plan lessons.  Lesson plans are effective because they provide order to an extremely chaotic situation.

I think, in my very limited experience, that the best teaching model will merge the current curriculum with many of Lockhart’s recommendations.  I agree that math, as it is taught now, fails to engage many of our most creative students.  But teaching in the real world requires much more than a passion for math.


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