There is increasing clamor for better education in mathematics and science---especially since the failure of innovations such as New Math and Discovery Learning—and it is not surprising that the slogan “back to basics” has appeal. Indeed, it would be desirable to have, everyone well-schooled in reading, writing, and basic arithmetic operations. But a return to the old methods will not achieve this.

The Report on the Second International Mathematics Study of 1987 found — that the prevailing view among teachers Photo: was “that learning for most students should be passive—teachers transmit knowledge to students who receive it and remember it mostly in the form in which it was transmitted.” Actually, this is training rather than teaching, and the report shows that it does not work. Instead of passive students, what is needed are students who want to learn. But schools that focus primarily on training students to perform on a...

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