What the Utah Legislature Could Learn About Math from Brigham Young University

Brigham Young University is, unfortunately, a unique institution. While morality is a primary focus of education at BYU, not very many other educational institutions understand just how conducive morality is to a great education. The Utah Legislature might consider this as they determine how best to encourage an improvement in students' mathematics skills and scores in the State of Utah.

Singapore has a very different way

Learning does not occur at its highest level if it is not accompanied by morality.

of teaching math than does the United States. Utah legislators are suggesting that improve Utah students' math scores, we need to emulate Singapore.
It's a new twist on an old meme that is drawing serious attention from lawmakers, education administrators and mathematicians who are concerned that Utahns are not prepared for the high-paying jobs of the future. After failing to get a task force funded during the 2008 legislative session, Sens. Margaret Dayton and Howard Stephenson instead put together a loose-knit group to figure out a formula to escape the death spiral of math grades. While they're still a couple of months from taking their suggestions public, the hope is that Utah will become a destination for employers in need of employees with high-level math skills.

David Wright is a BYU professor of mathematics who has long led the charge for reform. He says the American way of learning, at least in the early years, has become cumbersome. He contrasts current elementary text books with the lauded system used in Singapore. The American book is 600 pages and contains images of basketball stars and sports cars in an attempt to relate to students. Math problems are often "real life" problems.

The Singapore books (two of them at 125 pages each) focus mostly on algorithms and practice problems without the extraneous language and scenarios.
I think Professor Wright and the Legislators are onto something. They see the fluff in U.S. math books, and they realize that it's counterproductive. It is--but in more ways than they might think.

Learning does not occur at its highest

Our definition of "real life" in the United States has become very adulterated. "Reality television shows" incorporate minute fractions of the population doing almost nothing that the rest of us would ever think of doing, while the rest of us look on as voyeurs. This is immoral. I'll bet Singapore children don't spend much time watching reality shows.

level if it is not accompanied by morality. Yesterday, when speaking to BYU employees, family, and friends at the annual University Conference, President Cecil O. Samuelson stated that personal morality enhances our ability to learn.

Brigham Young University is rather unique in this regard. While BYU focuses on issues of morality, such as self-restraint, sexual purity, respect for values and the rule of law, and love of cultural heterogeneity, most schools teach that if it feels right, you should do it, that "I" receive fulfillment by placing "my" values above anyone else's, and that American culture trumps all others. What nearly all schools teach that use that use "images of basketball stars and sports cars" is a disregard for everyday morality.

President Samuelson also stated that learning and creativity are linked to morality causally, not casually.

According to Samuelson, BYU also teaches that
  • We don't have to believe what isn't true, meaning that we should prove to ourselves whether something is or is not true.
  • Reason and revelation reinforce each other. While we can learn a great deal by using reason and logic, we won't learn as much if we exclude the promptings and infusions of knowledge from a Higher Power.
  • Students should be exhilarated by their ability to inquire, create, and research.
  • Everyone should learn to love to learn.
Our definition of "real life" in the United States has become very adulterated. "Reality television shows" incorporate minute fractions of the population doing almost nothing that the rest of us would ever think of doing, while the rest of us look on as voyeurs. This is immoral. I'll bet Singapore children don't spend much time watching reality shows.

Advocates of parenthood planning and "if it feels good do it" belittle every scientific study that indicates that abstinence-based education does reduce sexual promisuity, heartbreak, and disease. This is immoral.

An attendee of to the National Democratic Convention claimed on the Liberty Roundtable Radio program yesterday that it's okay to worship Barack Obama, because millions already worship football players, sports car drivers, and rock stars. All of these are immoral.

So yes, let's change Utah's math curriculum. It's going to cause a great deal of blowback, because most school children have learned to enjoy being entertained, including (as much as possible) by their school assignments. A change of curriculum, however, to one more akin to the Singapore model, will help them improve their learning in two ways: (1) it will encourage students to focus on the tools of mathematics, and (2) it will discourage them from salivating at the immoral prospect of the (not so) "real life", complete with fast cars and celebrity. We do need more intellectual rigor in our studies, but I think we need more moral rigor as well.

Far more important than BYU's athletic successes are its successes in other areas. BYU is highly recognized in the scientific, political, religious, legal, and business fields. This recognition comes in great part because of individual and collective adherence by BYU employees and students to the principles of morality.

That's what Utah's school children need--a legislature, parents, and a state office of education that teach that morality is paramount. Perhaps they need this more than they need a new math curriculum.


  1. If I may respectfully disagree on the relationship between education and morality...

    I think there may be a relationship, but I would suspect that parents who take the time to teach morality to their children, are also engaged in their kids learning and thus children with higher morals may tend to have higher grades in schools.

    I think morality is important, and should be taught at home, however I don't think it is the business of the school system to teach morality as well as skills such as math and science. In fact I would suspect that should school 'take over' this role of teaching morality as well, that parents would be alleviated of even more parental responsibility, and the problem may in fact get worse.

    The difference I see between Singapore and the US, isn't morality, but rather the fact that the Singapore text books teach math, while the US textbooks are trying to market math and make it more fun, rather than focusing on the subject itself. Perhaps if math were taught as math and not as something trying to compete with TV, children could learn more. In the end the lessons which kids are being taught is that life should always be easy and fun, which results in a pretty rude awakening when they hit the real world.

    As a final example of the separation of morality and education. I obtained a world class education in South Africa. I suspect it may have been one of the best places in the world to gain such an education at the time, and it has served me well. That said though the education department was run by a highly immoral apartheid government that bore a closer resemblance to Nazi Germany than anything else.

  2. I think the influence of culture is overlooked when comparing Singapore's education model to American education.

    In Singapore they worship education. They attend school six days per week up to 10 hours per day. As a society they value educational rigor far more than do Americans. They also are a much more ordered society that prizes individualism far less than do Americans. Changing the course material for math isn't going to change the cultural differences.

    Some economists have argued that part of the reason Americans place less value on higher math and science skills is that they can make a decent living without these skills. While people with those skills can earn a good living, such skills are not required to live well. Americans tend to work in business. If they need math/science skills, they hire people that can do it, even if those people come from abroad.

    In essence, these economists are saying that there are real reasons (beyond a shoddy education system) that Americans don't pursue math and science the way they do in some other countries. Maybe that doesn't fully explain the phenomenon, but it's something that ought to be considered.


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