School change: high school math just doesn’t add up!

It started  some time  ago when I realized not every student needs algebra to be a productive member of society. I, like all educators, had drank the kool aid.I believed that every student needed algebra.

But it kept nagging at me that I couldn’t give sufficient real world examples of the use of algebra in the real world. And I visited all the time with highly successful people who told me they use little of what they learned in algebra, and NEVER in the context they learned it.

A good friend asked his father after heart surgery if he was ever worried he might die. He quipped that, “No, he knew it wasn’t his time” because his algebra teacher told him he’d need algebra someday, and he hadn’t needed it yet, and he knew his teacher wouldn’t lie to him. ;-)

All kidding aside …

I think the myth of algebra began with Larry Lezotte and Ron Edmonds. In their research they found that algebra one was the gateway to the advanced curriculum. They didn’t say that students needed to learn algebra to be productive members of society, but rather the  “system” required algebra I before you could take any of the advanced sciences.

We as educators interpreted that to mean that students needed to know algebra to be successful. I simply don’t believe that’s true. Let me be clear, I believe all of us use some algebra on a regular basis. But as far as I can tell the only profession that requires that you know all of algebra, is algebra teachers.

My second experience that leads me to question our math curriculum began as an accident. We have a shortage of engineers in my geographic area. In discussing this problem I began to hear that our students couldn’t pass the three required calculus courses to become engineers. The three required calculus courses were the “flunk out courses.”

Just by chance, an engineer offhandedly told me how hard calculus had been, and that once on the job he never used it. Since then, whenever I have an opportunity to speak to an engineer, I asked them how much they use calculus on the job. By far, the most common response is never.

Interestingly, if I asked the spouse of an engineer they often tell me that their spouse uses calculus all the time. Go figure.

Yesterday, October 13, 2010, I had another one of those experiences that caught my attention. I was in a meeting discussing project-based learning. The people who were present who are actually using project-based learning were saying that the one subject that they have not been able to figure out how to build into projects is math.

It caused me to think that we are approaching math education all wrong. I reflected on Howard Gardner’s book, Five Minds For The Future, where he talks about the need for our students to not just know about a subject, but to practice the discipline of that subject. Our students need to practice the discipline of being a social scientist, not just know a lot about the social sciences etc. etc..

When I applied that thinking the math, I asked myself the question do we really want kids to practice the discipline of mathematicians. The reality is, statistically speaking, none of our students is going to be a mathematician. But all of our students will use math in their future. We approach teaching math as if all of our students are going to be mathematicians.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It seems to me that we should completely rethink how we teach math. And perhaps the need to abandon much of what we expect students to regurgitate on math tests.

Just a blasphemous thought on school change. – Steve Wyckoff