Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
The problem with math instruction is that it’s just not relevant to the lives or future careers of our students. Writing in the New York Times, Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford say there is no “single established body of mathematical skills that everyone needs to know to be prepared for 21st-century careers.” The authors are the executive director of the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications; and an emeritus professor of mathematics at Brown. They write that, in fact, “different sets of math skills are useful for different careers, and our math education should be changed to reflect this fact.”
“How often do most adults encounter a situation in which they need to solve a quadratic equation? Do they need to know what constitutes a “group of transformations” or a “complex number”? Of course professional mathematicians, physicists and engineers need to know all this, but most citizens would be better served by studying how mortgages are priced, how computers are programmed and how the statistical results of a medical trial are to be understood.”
Say goodbye to algebra, geometry and calculus. In their place, Garfunkel and Mumford propose “a sequence of finance, data and basic engineering.”
“In the finance course, students would learn the exponential function, use formulas in spreadsheets and study the budgets of people, companies and governments. In the data course, students would gather their own data sets and learn how, in fields as diverse as sports and medicine, larger samples give better estimates of averages. In the basic engineering course, students would learn the workings of engines, sound waves, TV signals and computers. Science and math were originally discovered together, and they are best learned together now.”
Hey, I get it! It’s project-based learning! Again.
It all sounds sensible, even seductive. The worst ideas in education always do. “Relevant” isn’t supposed to be a synonym for dumbed-down, for example. It just always seems to work out that way. And my hunch is that students might struggle less with algebra, geometry and calculus if they showed up in high school with a strong foundation in basic math skills. As is often the case, Garfunkel and Mumford seem to be offering up a classic false dichotomy. Of course we want students who can calculate a tip, understand mortgage pricing or understand credit card interest payments. But we also need a math track that will produce scientists, engineers and mathematicians, who are already in short supply.
Anyone seen the baby? She was right here when I threw away the bathwater…
Over at Joanne Jacobs, she asks, ”Math or quantitative literacy?” (echoing Garfunkel’s and Mumford’s preferred term). Here’s another good rule of thumb: When someone describes a content area as a “literacy” watering down follows.