Monday, March 16, 2015

What are we teaching and why? Next up: Math requirements

Calculus Derivaties… Ode to Joy? Not for many.

Math in high school…

How many students do algebra II, pre-calculus, calculus actually benefit?

It's a debate that's gone on for years.

That's my point I guess. I remember this debate at a school board meeting I attended as a student in 1986.

How many math requirements should a student 'actually' have?

One high school I visited had a peculiar approach to 'required math' and also on how they approached 'electives.'

The school required students to take a "mandatory elective in each core discipline each year." I had to read it twice too when I saw the explanation of...

"Mandatory elective." Hmm.

At this school you had to take a 'math class' your senior year, regardless of how far you'd gone in the curriculum path, or what post secondary or career plans you had.

The reason for this "mandatory elective?" I was told it was… "Tradition, I guess. It's what we've always done. Our math scores are always very high."


Kirk: "If we play our cards right we may be able to find out
when those whales are being released."

Spock: "How will playing cards help?"

Star Trek IV, The Voyage Home
Many math teachers and administrators I've spoken to about 'math requirements' cite 'process thinking, discipline, and rigor' as reasons its good for students to take multiple years of math after Algebra I.

So I ask folks who take that route… what if we taught classes in, say, scrabble, chess, or card playing to accomplish the same goals? Many shrug their shoulders and / or their eyebrows and say that those would have a lot of value.

The only reason I can find that most agree upon why we require so many math classes?

Attend a 'college prep night' in most any high school and you'll hear it… an emphasis on Pre-Calculus, Calculus, and even AP Calculus are emphasized for "top schools." And "if you can go further, take a college level math class too."

"Calculus is the introductory math course at MIT. Freshmen arriving for their first year are expected to have already taken calculus. Highlights for High School offers many calculus resources, listed below, as well as some additional math courses appropriate for high school students."MIT Highlight for High School

Of course, some colleges and universities require advanced mathematics for different majors. Understood and logical. Well, in most cases it's logical. I have yet to meet a physician (MD) who claims calculus was a game changer.

So, if I'm a, let's say, 'Literature' or 'Philosophy' major at MIT… Calculus is required. It's MIT though… we can cut them some slack. There are a lot of other places in the world to go to college that don't require Calculus for this majors.

Back to that question for so many other students… how much math should be required?

I decided to take a small survey to see what students thought about taking 'Calculus.'

I visited four high schools that taught Calculus and asked 25 students in each school (100 total): Why did you take Calculus?

It will look good on a college application: 100
It was the only math class left in the curriculum I could take: 61

Digging a bit deeper from the student perspective, here's where the numbers drop off a bit:

I do / thought I would like Calculus / the challenge of Calculus: 5
I wanted the challenge: 4
I might need calculus for a potential job: 5
I'm sure I will need Calculus for a potential job: 2

Of the 5 who said they might need Calculus:

  • 2 were headed toward potential engineering majors
  • one toward a CS degree program that required Calculus
  • two more toward 'math' majors

I asked one more question…

If Calculus wasn't favored in college admission would you take it?

  • 91 out of 100 said "no."

When I asked why they might have said yes… the same five spoke up about future goals. The others 4? They cited 'teacher' and 'friends' as reasons they took the class.

Like AP classes we spoke about earlier, there are advantages to taking classes with great teachers, and / or with groups of friends. Shared experience, taking a journey with peers. I still wonder if AP and upper levels of math could be 'the right' classes for students.

Of course, numbers may vary at your schools, but I wonder by how much? Feel free to let me know.

"Wait… great teachers inspire new paths!"

I have yet to meet a student who said... "You know, I loved Calculus so much that I decided to become a…(insert profession)."

I'm not saying math isn't important of course. Just asking why is there 'really' so much emphasis on it for so high school students?

What if we really did require less math? What might students take? What, if anything, might prove more beneficial?

I'm thinking about time here. Replacing old requirements in favor of new ones instead of 'adding more.'

We'll unpack some ideas on what those other requirements might be in the next post.


Links to the full 'What Are We Teaching and Why? series:

8. Start overhauling tired learning spaces
7. #educolor and literary choices
6. Positive ripples of student choice
5. Common roadblocks
4. Student pursuing their interests
3. The Other Math
2. Rethinking Math Requirements
1. AP Classes

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