My soon-to-be stepdaughter is having trouble with her math homework lately. I tried to help her with it yesterday, and I think I somehow made things worse.
The problem in question was a simple step-by-step process to get sixth-graders used to the ideas needed to solve algebra problems: Some number (represented by a blank box) is multiplied by, added to, and subtracted from to produce, say, twelve. In this particular problem, she was given a blank box which was added to three, multiplied by zero, added to six, and multiplied by two to produce twelve.
Well, no problem. You just take twelve, divide by two to get six, subtract six to get zero, and divide by zero to get.... ?
And this is where she got stuck, and asked me for help. I looked at the problem and, with a little laugh at the stupidity of the book editors, explained why you can't divide by zero, and especially why you can't divide zero by zero. She seemed to understand. I told her to put a question mark by the problem and take it in.
Well, this morning I had the opportunity to talk to her math teacher about the problem. He said that every other child had decided that zero divided by zero should be zero, and that it wasn't worth the trouble to explain to sixth graders why division by zero isn't possible. I tried to explain that, hey, it doesn't matter what kind of math you're studying, division by zero is patently impossible. But he wouldn't even consider the possibility of striking the problem from their homework.
Giving up, my fiancee had already advised her daughter to do what the teacher suggested -- never mind that the final step in this particular problem then required her to subtract three from zero, producing a negative number which was even more alien to her than the concept of undefined division.
Now, this isn't quite an isolated incident. A few weeks ago I overheard my fiancee quizzing the girl on science homework out of the book, which said that "all living things other than man" were divided into two kingdoms, plants and animals. Now I never did that well in biology, but I recalled that there were actually five kingdoms to reckon with, and that human beings were squarely inside the animal one.
Was this an deliberate simplification by the book writers, to keep the question of what prokaryotes and eukaryotes are out of the way? Nope. Later on in the book it goes on for pages about how fungi are members of the plant kingdom, when in actuality they're in a kingdom by themselves -- and have been, since the late 1960s. (This science book was published in 1991.)
On my own, I sought out the school principal this morning and brought this inaccuracy to his attention, by way of pointing out that maybe his school's choice of science textbooks need to be reconsidered. He didn't argue the point, although he did briefly justify it by saying that, since this is a Christian school and the science text was directed at just such an audience, the authors were trying to identify man as a unique creation separate from the other animals and plants. I had expected this, and pointed out that while this may be true, any other biology book or biology student on Earth would say that human beings are classified as vertebrates and primates within the animal kingdom, and religion is simply beside the point.
But either way, I'm uncomfortable with the sort of education this child may be getting. It doesn't matter what grade you're in; zero is zero, and dividing by it is impossible. It doesn't matter what religion you're in; humans are biologically classified as animals and fungi are not plants. It doesn't matter what school you're in; some things are true, some things aren't, and telling a sixth grader that wrong things are right is only going to confuse them when they get into higher grades. And a math and science teacher who doesn't know his basic facts without a book to tell them to him shouldn't be in the classroom, I don't care how good he is with the kids.
I appreciate the value of a religious school environment, but not at the expense of simple facts. Altering truth for the sake of convenience isn't a habit teachers of any kind ought to get into.