Saturday, September 18, 2021

Modernizing the math classroom


Putting the polynomial division and imaginary zeros of algebra 2 in the crosshairs, The Wall Street Journal writes about how Steven Levitt, Conrad Wolfram, and other reformers are “pushing for a more equitable [mathematics] curriculum that better equips students for a data-driven world.”

Mr Levitt, the co-author of Freakonomics, has a simple plan for high school math: Condense algebra 1, geometry, and algebra 2 into two years and devote the freed-up third year of high school math to topics that are more relevant, such as data science or financial literacy.

The new curriculum would acknowledge the role computers play while advancing the ideas of data literacy, broadening the pathways to college acceptance, and preparing students for real-life issues, including amortizing a mortgage, evaluating the impact of waste on the environment, or deciphering infection rates of Covid-19.

A typical data science course, says Stanford professor Jo Boaler, might involve using real data sets to evaluate problems such as the spread of wildfires in California or hidden trends within crime rates.

Mr Wolfram, the author of the book The Math Fix: An Education Blueprint for the AI Age, says the fundamental problem with today’s math curriculum is that it doesn’t acknowledge that computers exist. He believes the process of mathematics involves four separate phases or steps:

  1. Pose the right question
  2. Turn that into a math model or setup
  3. Do the calculation
  4. Turn the answer back into the real world and critically verify it

“We should be using computers to do step 3, except in rare cases where it is still useful to do mental arithmetic,” he says in a 2013 address. “And we should be using students to do a lot more of steps 1, 2, and 4. We don’t want students to be third-rate computers; we want them to be first-rate problem-solvers.”

Without a total makeover, he says math education in the US runs the risk of becoming as obscure as Latin: “The big question is, how and when it changes,” the Journal quoted him as saying.

Part of the answer to Mr Wolfram’s big question is getting states to approve any changes to the curriculum and getting colleges and universities to accept the new coursework for credit when students apply for admission.

Ms Boaler is on a committee now working with California’s state education department, and she is also working with Stanford and other California universities to acknowledge the replacement of data science or other real-world math courses for algebra 2, the Journal noted.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.


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