I suppose it was inevitable. As soon as I saw the first promo for FOX's Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? I knew that eventually I would be compelled to blog about it. The breaking point came when I turned off a DVD I was watching and found myself confronted with the show already in progress. Foxworthy and a female contestant were debating the merits of algebra.
Before I go into the details of the particular question, let me say a few general things about the show. The execs picked the perfect host for the show. The game is about stupid people and the prepubescent, so it is only fitting that the host be an idiot whose voice has yet to change. Riding the wave of redneck chic as far as he can, Foxworthy has proven that smarts are dead weight in entertainment. As to the contestants, well, let me reprise a comment that I used to make back when Sajak and Trebec were king and queen. What would be the point of putting a Jeopardy caliber contestant on Wheel of Fortune? In a game which is basically turning Hangman into a spectator sport, there is no fun in watching someone solve the puzzles too fast. Instead, you need to stack the deck of stupidity. Such is the case with Fifth Grader. We are nearing the end of a long history of dumbing down that began with the $64 Million Question and filtered through Jeopardy, then Millionaire, and wound up here. I can only assume that someone somewhere is pitching the next hit to the CW network entitled Are You Retarded?
Now back to algebra. The question asked was "if y=3x and 3x=12, then what number does y equal?" There are two points to be made here. The first is that this is only algebra in a loose sense. It is an example of the Transitive Property, which requires no calculation or manipulation to solve. Really it's simple logic. The term 3x could be replaced with thingamajig, whoosiwhatsit, or whatchamacallit without affecting the process in the least. The second point, and really the entire point of this post believe it or not, is in the woman's answer. She saw 3x=12 and said 4, the correct value of x. In a situation where she had every incentive to listen carefully and consider closely, she processed the question through her school algebra filter and out popped 4.
What are we to make of this? Clearly the contestant could perform the algorithms. She answered a different question correctly. Unfortunately, she had not learned to think mathematically. Similar questions appear on all manner of multiple choice standardized tests with similar outcomes. In my opinion, they show more clearly the flaws of the teacher, not the student. Too many assignments are given where mastering a single manipulation is enough to score well. The mindless repetition sometimes strengthens one neural pathway while excluding others. We must be careful that students are learning what we are trying to teach, and not some short-cut that eludes our watch.
I'm not calling for simply more word problems or some New Age brand of reform learning. I'm just saying that sometimes all the numbers and symbols and syntax get in the way of the actual math. Maybe we should try mixing in a few more watchamacallits and see what happens.