Friday, January 8, 2010

Math Elective

I have been reading a number of the posts on David Bresoud's blog at They are slowly bringing me to the conclusion that my profession is in danger. More and more I see math education mirroring the american automotive industry. We are certain that there will always be a demand for what we provide. We are certain that people will desire a version of that product that is nearly identical to version we produced 20 years ago. This may not be true, and we have gone a long way to "reform", but there is still a long way to go. Bresoud articles seem to point out consistently our ridiculous adoration of calculus as the bridge between high school and college mathematics. He points out also how this leads to all kinds of systems and policies that lead people to take math they don't want and they don't need. The math they do want and do need is often under-supported, under-credited, and under-appreciated.

Those are my interpretations of his articles. You may have your own. One of his more recent posts, here, talks about the indicators of success in college. And of course points out what many know, the SAT and ACT are not particularly good predictors of college success. Which is what I understood their importance to be in the first place.

So what if SAT and ACT went away?

At first, I was excited by the prospect. So many pieces of ridiculous mathematics could be jettisoned from the curriculum. We would have freedom to create programs that make sense for today. It would be easier to rest control of the curriculum from calculus and refocus on statistics and discrete math. More and more students are going in biological sciences (need statistics) and fewer and fewer are becoming engineers (need calculus).

Then the dark side of it hit me. If math teachers could say you need this for SAT, then what is the likelihood we could keep our requirement status. Would you really need four years. How many students and parents would like their child to not HAVE to take math. Based on how many people regularly tell me that they hate math or were never any good at it, A LOT.

And what if happened quickly. Where would we be?

This is why I feel we have to teach math as if it were an elective. Every class. Every class needs to have a clear purpose. Students should not leave high school without knowing how to use excel, because if you are going to do real math in the real world you are going to use excel at some point. So screw the calculator and get the computer.

How much data is being produced today? Way more than can be analyzed currently, but they are looking for people to do it. Why has AP Statistics grown and grown. When will it plateau?

I guess I have a lot of questions, but I don't know how to rattle the colleagues I see around me to the coming danger.


Robert Talbert said...

Given that mathematics has been a required subject in schools pretty much since the invention of school (as one of the pillars of the liberal arts), I don't think that math's survival in school is tied to the perpetuation of standardized tests that require math. So I'm not worried about the profession of teaching math as such.

But you are right in pointing out that the math curricula and how we teach it would have to change into something very different than we see now. It cannot remain SAT/ACT prep and stay viable for the future. Math has always been valuable as a liberal art because (when taught right) it teaches students to become independent thinkers, able to parse out relationships among quantities, describe patterns in those relationships, and think carefully and systematically. That is still as true today as it was 20 centuries ago; only today the challenge for independent thinking is to contend with all the data and technology. Moving in the directions you've mentioned actually makes math a lot more like math than if we just take the ACT/SAT-prep approach.

Whit Ford said...

As our knowledge has grown, our curricula have been forced to evolve. Science curricula have changed a great deal, math curricula less so.

Many companies and organizations have realized tremendous productivity gains over the past century, yet average math teaching techniques today are not terribly different from those used 100 years ago in many classrooms.

What has not changed much is the time available.

I agree wholeheartedly with your lament. The time is indeed ripe for encouraging both what is taught and how it is taught to evolve in the math classroom. We need to "sell" the subject better so that more students both enjoy and appreciate it, find ways to help students learn it more efficiently, and tie what is being taught very directly to what will be of greatest economic (salary and savings) and social (educated citizenry, sense of empowerment and control) benefit to each student.

Kevin said...

We could only hope for such change. But even in such change I don't think your job us so much in danger as your title. The need for teachers isn't going away, but I do have dreams of a day when we stop trying to chop up knowledge into subjects. Integration, in the pedagodgical sense, could be one future. Why teach math when a class could explore relevant current issues from cultural, historical and mathematical perspectives. Add some science and writing, put some art in there etc. Anyway, some people should worry about their jobs, but I have feeling you'll always be needed Kate, and those like you fir whom "math teacher" is a limited and confining label.

nisha said...

Inspired thinking, I have bookmarked this and will come back to check