By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle
After spending my entire career in front of math classrooms, it is not surprising that I have been highly supportive of the positive attention that has been given to math and science teachers in the past few years. Even in an era of deep educational budget cuts, these two subjects were virtually immune to a loss of funding. When the class sizes of the usual suspects—art, music, physical education—were increased I had limited guilty feelings. But a recent episode of the PBS series NOVA Science NOW has given me some significant second thoughts. The October 10 telecast placed the potential role of educational electives in a very different light.
The origin of language
Through a series of interviews, experiments and demonstrations this program made a clear connection between primitive tool making two million years ago and the development of the human brain. These endeavors caused changes in brain functions which allowed advances in communication unique to human beings. As ancient man became more sophisticated in making the tools that would allow him to survive and thrive, his ability to increase the benefits of his large brain grew as well. When the use of rocks as crude “hammers” advanced to carefully crafted sharpened “knives” the resulting increases in brain functionality allowed the ancestors of human beings to develop rudimentary speech. It was shown that as the complexities of implements grew, early man began to communicate through sounds then with words and ultimately complete sentences. This ultimately led to the ability to acquired and retain knowledge.
The implications for education
As educational budgets impact the electives a constant refrain is “…a truly educated person is one who has a well-rounded academic background, but…” The difficult choices concerning what to trim, however, almost always place electives into the slashing crosshairs. The constant focus on math and science in testing, international rankings and even in the distant memories of the space race does nothing to lessen that trajectory. Despite my strong devotion to the importance of mathematics, after watching the NOVA presentation on the development of language I have to advocate a different path. If the act of transforming rocks and sticks into tools were the stimulus to form the most sophisticated communication on the planet, there is little doubt as to the overall value of creating art, producing music and building competitiveness through athletics.
Ultimately, based on this evidence, the best path for student success in math and language includes the study of courses most likely to be cut in future budgets. The mutual benefit for math and language with these subjects is undeniable. Removing them from the standard curriculum is shortsighted and will lessen not improve academic achievement in the classes that most concern educational policy makers.