November 6, 2016 Mike Gwaltney 2 responses

Making Math Education Inquiry-based, Interdisciplinary, and Meaningful

A long-time member of my professional learning network, Alanna King, posted today about “wrestling with math.” Alanna’s son has found his way into the meat grinder that is math education in most schools, and she is thinking about his struggles in light of her reading of Building School 2.0 (recommended).

We all know the story of the kids who struggle in math. Long nights of homework, tutoring, and some of them never quite become the computational experts their personal computers are. This week I was in a parent-teacher conference with a really top student who excels in all of her classes but is struggling in Calculus class. All that anxiety and stress because she believes (and with good reason, unfortunately) that Calculus is a mountain she must climb in order to get into the college of her choice. The student disclosed in her conference that she wouldn’t be taking the course if she didn’t think it was necessary in the college rat race.

College is a real world goal for students, certainly, but if it is the only reason to take math, it seems like a poor one. Students should understand that math education has a more meaningful purpose, and that purpose should not be math itself. A “siloed” math education divorces the meaning from math and for students who don’t see it as fun, the typical question is “why am I doing this?” Math should be a problem-solving tool for the real world, and education in math should look like that.

what is math?I wrote about this on my blog back in November 2010, and about Conrad Wolfram’s TED talk in which he argues that computers should do most of the computational work of math, leaving the focus on the interdisciplinary purpose of mathematics:

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  1. Alanna King    

    Thanks Mike for your thoughtful response and for deepening my thinking again. I had a marvellously rare 1 hour conversation with my principal this week as we are getting ready to open up course selection for grade 9s, earlier than ever, this month for next year. I asked at my department head’s meeting “How do we know we’re offering the right courses?” Like you in the States, we have a certain amount of diploma requirements, but our school is a community school in that it needs to offer 1/3 university-bound, 1/3 college-bound and 1/3 workplace-bound courses….it turns out we offer only 1/6 workplace-bound courses. My principals says that the school receives a lot of parental pressure in math as a prerequisite for college/university courses even though the students’ level would be better in the workplace curriculum. One stat stood out in my mind…out of our 300 graduates last year, only 15 of them actually required a university-bound math credit. Yet we offered closer to 180 spots in university-bound math that filled up! This leaves me wondering, how much of math education is stigmatized? How do we alter this perception?

  2. Mike Gwaltney - Post Author    

    I really appreciated your post, Alanna. It sounds like you have discovered at your school this vexing problem of university-inspired math expectations of the parents and students. That’s going to be a very difficult nut to crack. We live with certain imperatives unfortunately, and what colleges demand is certainly one of them. I hope you all can figure out how to un-stigmatize math and alter the perception of what students should do with math. I am hoping we can all push on colleges to recognize courses in which students apply math knowledge gained in Algebra and Statistics to the real world, rather than forcing them into Calculus. Good luck to all of us!

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Mike Gwaltney