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MIT Scratch project, by a 2nd grader

I grew up in the 1960s, starting at Markham Elementary here in Portland. The campus, where Capitol Highway meets Barbur Boulevard is long gone. That was an annex, with the main campus, now a community center, in Multnomah Village. New Math was at an apex.

When Tom Lehrer came out with That Was the Year That Was, a record album, I was finishing second grade. We had learned with an abacus about place value, and we had learned that we were not stuck with base ten. The carry operation might happen sooner, if the base were lower, or later, if the base were greater. I didn’t understand why the grownups thought his New Math song was so funny. “But that’s completely correct!” I interjected. That got them laughing all the harder.

By third grade, I was in the Junior English School of Rome, and enjoying a traditional British education. The money hadn’t been decimalized yet. I learned to do mixed base calculations, along with the usual base 10 algorithms. By fourth grade, I was back in a more American-like setting, at the Overseas School of Rome, and I was ahead of my peers, because British kids did longer divisions and wider additions.

Later, I came to understand that the New Math I was learning in my early grades was actually a response to professional paranoia. The Russians had put a satellite in orbit. Were we falling behind? The infusion of set theoretic concepts meant a huge turnover in textbooks, and teacher training. Lets all think more like Bertrand Russell. We’d all be geniuses yet.

Later still, the teachers rebelled. New Math was too alien. Besides, the moon landings had happened, and the USSR was cracking up. Beating the Russians in some space race was no longer a priority. We needed to get our heads out of the clouds and return to everyday math concepts. Or so it seemed.

Three waves of technological innovation made a difference. In chronological order they were: the emergence of scientific calculators at a price most families could afford; the emergence of the personal computer, and lots of software we could buy; the emergence of free software and cloud platforms.

Math teachers adjusted to the calculator and then to proprietary software. The schools didn’t use that much open source stuff because of their role in the economy, as chief consumers of intellectual property. McGraw-Hill, Pearson and such, needed to keep selling textbooks. Stamping out free media (“piracy is not a victimless crime”) and colluding with Texas Instruments, was the name of the game.

As a result, mathematics entered a time warp such that, when Learning to Code became a “thing” the math teachers were poorly positioned to adapt. Students would be learning their XYZ coordinates in Computer Science instead, or in addition, if this were one of those fortunate academies that could afford CS teachers. Schools with the “right stuff” in terms of digital infrastructure could also teach a stronger statistics curriculum. STEM was moving to Jupyter Notebooks.

The Common Core penned the math teachers in, by insisting on base ten as the one and only. Teaching place value without the benefit of multiple bases, seemed rather odd to my way of thinking, but then I’d grown up in a different generation. Computers had come naturally to me, as I was already aware of number bases. In the new configuration, mathematics and computer science were to be kept apart, even in the lower grades. School systems elsewhere might make different choices. The global economy was based on Unicode.

By 2018, the math teachers were in a desperate situation. The CS teachers were taking on calculus, the crown jewel of pre-college prep. Prospects for professional development, on the job training, were at a low ebb.

In my pep talks to the math teachers, I would attempt to cheer them up by showing them a strategy for escaping the clutches of the Common Core. We had some spatial geometry content nowhere covered by Pearson or McGraw-Hill. The humanities teachers would be supportive. New England Transcendentalism (Emerson, Thoreau…) had always been popular as literature. Once it became patently obvious that the existing curriculum was too full of holes, we might see some light at the end of the tunnel. The new heritage would be worthwhile. I called it Gnu Math, a pun on New Math and GNU (GNU is Not Unix), the progenitor of free software.

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Gnu Math Garden

Although charterless public schools were avowedly secular, some of the charters were less so, with private schools even more religious. Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Mormon and Protestant curricula, as well as Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist, all had their own take on computer science. The sacred geometry traditions were less verboten in a religious context, by and large. Competition for mindshare took to the Web.

The Russians were at it again, competing, this time as Christians instead of Communists. The secular corporatists would need to revamp. Military superiority was not going to help as the cultures in question were diffused throughout the globe. Would Common Core prove a strong enough religion in its own right, to keep the loyalty of the rank and file? Obviously I was skeptical and wanted to help teachers respond to the challenges with something stronger. Going back to New Math was not an option, but Gnu Math still looked promising, especially with the growing home schooler market.

Making computers be more central, as they were in office cubicles, meant allowing students to have their own personal workspaces, minimally Chromebooks with access to the cloud. A student could work on a Scratch program at school and continue with the same project at home, perhaps on a different computer. Perhaps the school gave out laptops? Competitive schools were creating their own shared cloud platforms, encouraging student-faculty collaboration. Plays, sporting events, debate contests, could all become curated content, along with the school newspaper and yearbook. We were living in exciting times.

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