We have to call this stuff out

Strange start to the day.

First was Kate Nowak noticing the hate Vi Hart routinely heaps on math teachers. As happens at 2:04 in the video below. Note especially her tone here.

Then the following comes across my desk (click on it to see the full size version).

Screen Shot 2013-02-13 at 10.18.34 AM

The first line reads, “Statistics show that more students are coming from high school with weaker mathematical backgrounds than ever before.”

No citation. No argumentation. Just Statistics show.

I have replied with the following:

Wow. Gotta admit that first line is provocative.

What evidence are you basing this claim upon?
Christopher Danielson
I’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, we need someone with some mad video skills to make a “Sal and Vi Hate Math Teachers” video in the spirit of “Hollywood Hates Math“. I’ll help with the archival work. Who’s in?

10 responses to “We have to call this stuff out

  1. Is she ragging on mathematics teachers, or on mathematics curriculum? I think the distinction is important. She has certainly openly complained about mathematics class often enough, but who hasn’t?

    What’s the difference between “A Mathematician’s Lament” and Vi Hart’s diatribes on math teachers & math curriculum besides the specific language they use?

    I’m not a huge fan of tearing down specific people, no matter how much I disagree with their perspective, or how much of a generalization they have made. I would prefer to attack her argument. What evidence does she have that all math classes everywhere make a butchery of geometry? I’d say that would be a difficult generalization to prove.

    The letter is awful. I receive similar emails myself making similar claims. You were generous to have spent your time constructing a response and then even more so to send it back. I usually just ignore their claims (occasionally I attempt to examine them closely. See http://davidwees.com/content/do-ipads-improve-mathematics-instruction-maybe).

    • I came here from this post about the Harts’ presentation at NCTM 2013. I wasn’t there and can’t speak to it. But what did cross my mind while reading that post and those comments was how is seemed folks were being harder on Vi Hart than they are on Paul Lockhart for saying sharp things about “typical” math education. And then here David has raised just this point.
      I think that part of this difference in attitude is that Paul’s (at least de facto) audience is us—math teachers—while Vi’s audience is the general public, and in particular our students. And so I can see how it’s possible to feel more attacked by one than the other—as if Vi is spreading vicious and false rumors about us behind our backs. For this and probably other reasons, I can see why Vi speaking to a huge room of teachers (like at NCTM) could be uncomfortable for all involved.
      I think an important question for each of us to ask as we grapple with sharp rhetoric about math education is, “do I feel like I am being attacked and my work is being attacked, or is this person fighting something else—inertia, a system, lack of knowledge or awareness—that is really big and really hard to move, and so is being hyperbolic and sharp?” And maybe more specifically about Vi, “is she speaking to me in my roles as a teacher or in my role as a former student?”

  2. David asks whether Vi is on about teachers or curriculum. Probably both, but the line is this: “If you bring out the ruler and compass and they’re like Let’s do some geometry! Let’s draw two lines at 90 degree angles…” Who is the “they” there? It has to be math teachers.

    But there is beauty in what she scorns. It might not always be elegantly taught, but can you deny that it’s beautiful that we construct a rhombus and get perpendicular lines as an accidental result? We’re not constructing perpendicular lines. We’re constructing a rhombus. All a compass knows how to do is mark off equal distances. But when you construct a rhombus, it just so happens that the diagonals are perpendicular. That’s beautiful.

    And we can also talk about Vi’s ideas at 3:00 which end with “They [teachers] are lying to you!”

  3. When you listen to Vi’s videos, wherever you would normally think “math teachers” think “bad math teachers.” Now don’t you find yourself nodding along?

  4. One other thing to bear in mind here is an online persona versus people’s actual opinions. A lot of “internet celebrities” develop certain characteristics they’re known for in videos or reviews that may not (or, granted, may) be part of their beliefs. In a case like this, since the majority of the audience is probably people who don’t feel like they’re getting enough out of their math classes, a few slams would have (as the previous commenter said) people “nodding along”.

    I’m not saying it’s a conscious thing either. Vi may not be aware of how much she does it, or to what extent, or what effect it might be having. She’s previously stated that (in effect) she did a few videos to engage people in math and somehow gained a following, prompting more videos. I’d be more inclined to draw her attention to particular cases and suggest alternatives (for instance adjectives can do wonders) rather than go full on with a counter video. She’s struck me as someone who’s pretty receptive – certainly more so than Hollywood.

    For the record, she does slam certain curriculum aspects too, like this one video where I always feel sorry for the poor parabola… no doubt getting a complex as she goes on about how much cooler and less boring cardioids are in comparison. :/

    The letter just has me beating my head into the edge of my desk though. Not only vague, but I notice no “statistics show” that their “fresh new approach” (still a textbook!) has any benefit whatsoever. Groan.

  5. Regarding Vi, it’s just her schtick. She takes the perspective of a bored flighty high school student doodling out patterns instead of listening to her math teacher, with the irony being she’s actually doing deep mathematics. Her audience is the general public, not math teachers, and the lesson is that math is deeper and more beautiful than what you are taught in school. Who can disagree with that? All school subjects become a little banal and sterile, when they are standardized into a curriculum and taught to groups of 25+ students at a time. Her schtick works because the difference between a math and an English literature class is that everyone partakes in some form of storytelling outside of their English classroom, even if it’s just watching tv, whereas very few people do anything purely math-related outside of their math classroom.

  6. I get the schtick thing. I do.

    For me, though, there is a much greater responsibility when she’s working for Khan Academy. Doing independent work that people find on YouTube is much different from providing content for the man who is building The One World Schoolhouse.

    It would be very, very easy to change from the harsh tone aimed at teachers to one that leaves teachers out of it. You might think math is boring and hard could very easily replace Your teachers are lying to you when they tell you you need to memorize your multiplication tables. I think it’s a switch you need to make when your platform gets big and corporate funded.

    All of which leaves out the question of what, if anything, people are supposed to learn from her videos. I do find them charming but everything is way too fast for her ideas to stick with me. Again, that’s fine. There’s plenty of stupid entertainment in the world, so I have no objection to smart entertainment as a counterbalance. But the scorn for math teachers dumbs it down a bit, and it’s needless.

  7. Christopher,I concur. I don ‘t appreciate anyone lumping and stereotyping any group together and beating them down. Who wants to party with anyone pompous, AND especially when one is supposedly closing the gap…not appreciated one bit, nope, not at all. Thank you for your courage for speaking up.

  8. I like Vi’s videos, but I only show them to my students when we can analyze what she is saying or after I have explained something; then she can spice it up with her drawings and references. I feel like my students would have great difficulty in following her without prior knowledge.
    With that said, I struggle with her perception of math class. I TRY SO HARD to make my class exciting and full of exploration and wonder. I also attempt to find connections and applications beyond the contrived. I do this all while fighting the disadvantages of poverty (apathy, self-defeated attitudes, hunger…), meeting the expectations of my administrators (who know what good fact sharing looks like but do not know what good mathematics looks like), and trying to figure out this looming beast called the CCSS and the “gatekeeper” of every student’s future, the ACT.
    I’m frustrated…but I will continue to challenge my students to appreciate math for its truth and beauty and history and application. Let’s see Vi and Sal do that with a “nerd” governor, faddish administrators, and the cycle of poverty breathing down their neck.
    So how do we fix this?
    Sorry for making this my rant…but it was cathartic!

  9. Happy to host your rantings, Don. As long as they adhere to the bloggy principles I have outlined before, and which Amy alludes to, I don ‘t appreciate anyone lumping and stereotyping any group together and beating them down. You’re well within the bounds.

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