Thursday, September 15, 2011

Math Curriculum - What should we be teaching?

This article I read this morning by Audrey Watters titled "Is Math Education Too Abstract" hit home for me.  Yes...I think math education is too abstract.  I taught math at both middle and high school for over 17 years, and the majority of that time, with struggling students.  I have to admit, I couldn't see the point of teaching how to solve a quadratic equation to a senior in Algebra for the third time who's future plan was to work in his dad's auto shop. What this boy needed was to have math that was relevant - like how to balance a check book, determine what sale price really gives the best deal, or how to make investments - things he was going to actually do in his future. 

With this age of testing and the push for 'algebra for all students', I think we have lost sight that not all students need it. I am NOT saying we shouldn't be aiming high and encouraging students to excel in mathematics, but what I think we should stop doing is forcing all students on the traditional path of algebra, geometry, algebra 2, precalculus, calculus.  What happened to statistics?  Where is Personal Finance? Think about our economy right now - we are totally messed up because the US can't balance a check book....maybe because the politicians never took Personal Finance?!! 

Clearly, the path we are on in mathematics is not going to change soon, especially in light of the Common Core.  But...we do need to get away from the reliance on memorizing formulas to pass standardized tests because that is NOT engaging, is abstract and is a reason students are not getting math!  Thankfully, the Common Core does emphasize engaging students, modeling real world problems, helping students communicate, etc.  Hopefully, if implemented correctly, we will get away from the uninteresting way mathematics tends to be structured and taught.  Hopefully more math teachers will embrace engaging curriculum that uses inquiry learning versus rote memorization and drill and kill.  Hopefully there will be more use of dynamic mathematics software like Sketchpad, TinkerPlots or Fathom (shameless plug!) used in the classroom to allow students to engage rather than be passive listeners.

What do I really think would help math education?  Stop standardized testing. But...since that's not going to happen, maybe offer math classes that give students more options, such as personal finance or statistics (not AP Stats).  If a student is taking algebra for the third time, perhaps it would be nice for there to be another option - one that makes sense.  There's a lot of math out there that's needed -how many foreclosures could we have prevented if homeowners understood more about borrowing rates?  I say we not only focus on standards, but focus on needs of the students in the world they have to survive in.  Once that test they pass (or don't) is over...what then?

Read the article - it'll make you think.  And, check out Dan Meyer's Ted Talk on the same topic, especially if you are a math teacher.


Milo's Mama said...

This makes me think about this article I just read today, essentially on the racial wealth gap:

"I remember my grandmother telling us we could do anything we wanted to do." But, she adds, she doesn't remember getting advice on how to do it.

Like inheritance, financial know-how is key to closing the racial wealth gap, says Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation. He says families that don't expect to climb the economic ladder often don't acquire the skills to do so.

More details in the article, but it seems like there are practical things we could be teaching in math class that could help this issue. And would do more for students' futures than offering algebra for the third time.

Karen Greenhaus said...

Thanks for the article link - I definitely see the relationship. I believe the way we teach math and what we teach are a significant reason for the disconnect and failure of our minority and special needs populations. Hence the reason so many schools are 'failures' because of their AYP results from No Child Left Behind. No one seems to make the connection that maybe it's NOT the teachers but the content of what they are forced to teach.