The provocative article in today’s New York Times, “Is Algebra Necessary?” raises excellent questions about what we choose to include or exclude in the school curriculum. When we say we want to make sure that we have “critical thinking” in the curriculum, there’s often the worry that there isn’t enough time. Yet, curricular topics like Algebra pretty much slip by unquestioned:
Andrew Hacker asked in the article:
Quantitative literacy clearly is useful in weighing all manner of public policies, from the Affordable Care Act, to the costs and benefits of environmental regulation, to the impact ofclimate change. Being able to detect and identify ideology at work behind the numbers is of obvious use. Ours is fast becoming a statistical age, which raises the bar for informed citizenship. What is needed is not textbook formulas but greater understanding of where various numbers come from, and what they actually convey.
What of the claim that mathematics sharpens our minds and makes us more intellectually adept as individuals and a citizen body? It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion. But there’s no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² – y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis.
And he proposes a different kind of math, math that is studied within the it’s socio-political context, not in the abstract:
Instead of investing so much of our academic energy in a subject that blocks further attainment for much of our population, I propose that we start thinking about alternatives. Thus mathematics teachers at every level could create exciting courses in what I call “citizen statistics.” This would not be a backdoor version of algebra, as in the Advanced Placement syllabus. Nor would it focus on equations used by scholars when they write for one another. Instead, it would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.
What he is proposing is a kind of integrated curriculum similar to what John Dewey advocated for in the 1920s-30s when he called for looking at subject matter as “concentrated” in the activities of our everyday lives, and at how they are correlated to each other rather than existing separately as math, science, geography, politics.
I recall what math was like for me in high school.
I didn’t always know what was going on or why we were studying what we were studying. And in junior college in Singapore, I remember the Math lecturer coming into the room and telling us “you Arts students, you should drop math, because you will pull down the math scores of the school” – and a lot of Arts students did drop math because it was so discouraging. And many did go on to use and learn math-in-context in their lives as they applied it to business, industry and their everyday lives. Many students also went through life self-identifying as “I am not good in math” when what their math experiences really indicated was that “I am not good in math as it is narrowly constructed, out of the context of its use”.
What a waste of resources and potential talent.