Sunday, May 17, 2009

Do Our Students Need Algebra?

I am a calculus teacher but I must say, I almost never use traditional algebra in my daily life. It feels like a sin for me to utter those words out loud.

I really should quantify that statement. I do not write equations and solve for x. Nor do I create graphs of linear equations to understand a problem better. I do not multiply polynomials nor do I factor. The only time I use the quadratic formula is to solve a problem given in class.

This is not to say that I don't use math on a daily basis. I do. I am constantly calculating rates: how fast did I bike fifteen miles? How long will it take me to do the sixty mile ride at that speed? Is my speed increasing over time? I can't read a newspaper or magazine without being inundated with ideas about statistics and how to interpret them. I routinely make directed graphs to show the flow through a system and easily explain paths to others.

Yet, where is all of this covered in a traditional high school mathematics course? Calculating rates are quickly covered early on but I still find many of my seniors in calculus don't know how to calculate the average miles per gallon for their car nor can they figure out how to start by analyzing the units. They do not know how to interpret the rates that are given to them in terms of a problem. How does a 5% interest rate effect the $1000 they put away for retirement at 20 years old versus a 3% interest rate?

Then there is statistics. I don't believe that our school is out of the norm to only teach students about averages and not about measures of variation. What is taught is only how to do it and not how can those numbers be manipulated to give a support to whatever conclusion is wanted. Nowhere do we start talking about percentiles, hypothesis testing, or confidence intervals. These are ideas that will come up again and again through their adult life but we harp on about how they must learn to determine the degree of polynomial!

Maybe I'm progressive but I believe that our first focus should be on teaching mathematics that the students will use in their daily adult lives. They should know about more than the process but also how to use and interpret the results in different situations. Our focus should be on making our students mathematically literate enough so that they can calculate the tip they need to leave at a restaurant and know when they are being ripped off in a business transaction.

That is not to say that I believe that our current program is unneeded. As a calculus teacher, I want students passing through the traditional curriculum so that they can get to my class with sufficiently strong symbolic manipulation skills so that we can start attacking the concepts without worrying about the rules involved. I just do not believe that this traditional background is necessary for all students.

A new goal arises then: creating a course called "Math For Life". What topics, concepts, and understandings do you believe need to be included in this course for being successful in daily life?

1 comment:

  1. Bravo! I interact with so many that lack basic understanding of math in their lives. Well written, passionately felt.