Friday, March 30, 2012
Yesterday in my curriculum class we had a pretty good discussion on whether algebra is necessary for most Americans. I still maintain that it is not. In the Air Force, which I think can represent a good portion of middle class jobs, I needed to be fairly skilled in arithmetic. But I never really needed to use variables or solve a system of equations using elimination. Also, I think the majority of Americans can't do basic algebra, so it would be a surprise if it were absolutely necessary for their jobs.
My motivation for saying algebra isn't required for most jobs is to change the way we look at math education. I think math is a great way to develop good logic and problem solving skills and I think it can be a lot of fun. However, I don't think it is the only way to develop these skills, and aside from the fact that people use math tests (e.g. SAT) as a signal of education and intelligence, I don't think knowing any of the techniques beyond arithmetic is strictly necessary.
So my point is that in an ideal world we wouldn't treat math as if it were vocational education, like some manual that people have to master in order to do their job. It isn't. Anyone who isn't enjoying math is probably not getting much out of it. Instead, I think we should treat math more like an elective. That is, design our lessons as games, projects, experiments, etc. that are designed to get students thinking. If this takes more time and we don't have time to drill a formula, so be it. The formula probably isn't that important to someone who isn't going to major in math or science. But as long as we think that math is a series of indispensable techniques and formulas, we can never justify slowing down because we might miss something.
Now, if someone wants to specialize in math or science, a lot of things become indispensable. But I completely disagree that we are going to get more students willing to specialize in math and science by subjecting them to a death march through Algebra II. Plus, the most important thing for people who want to specialize in this area is to develop certain habits of mind. I personally thought math was a mindless chore until calculus. It was only tolerable because I was better than most of my peers. I was lucky in that I had a great calculus teacher (and great teachers at the college level) who were able to open my eyes.
If we really want people to go into math and science, make math interesting. Because it is interesting before we ruin it. And we are ruining it. I wish I could say I have been able to do this in my own classroom. I haven't. I still basically follow the prescribed curriculum at the recommended pace, and I get a lot of push-back when I try to do things differently. Plus, I don't really have time to reinvent the wheel for every lesson. So I feel like my teaching is a patchwork that doesn't really represent my still-developing philosophy.
Note: one of my colleagues sent me a textbook from a school that seems to have done a pretty good job at implementing a curriculum more like what I imagine. It is called the Park School of Baltimore. I am now looking into it more closely as part of my class, and it seems like a lot of fun. Check it out.