Why Calculus still belongs at the top

AP Calculus is often seen as the pinnacle of the high school mathematics curriculum*–or the “summit” of the mountain as Professor Arthur Benjamin calls it. Benjamin gave a compelling TED talk in 2009 making the case that this is the wrong summit and the correct summit should be AP Statistics. The talk is less than 3 minutes, so if you haven’t yet seen it, I encourage you to check it out here and my first blog post about it here.

I love Arthur Benjamin and he makes a lot of good points, but I’d like to supply some counter-points in this post, which I’ve titled “Why Calculus still belongs at the top.”

Full disclosure: I teach AP Calculus and I’ve never taught AP Statistics. However I DO know and love statistics–I just took a grad class in Stat and thoroughly enjoyed it. But I wouldn’t want to teach it to high school students. Here’s why: For high school students, non-Calculus based Statistics seems more like magic than mathematics.

When I teach math I try, to the extent that it’s possible, to never provide unjustified statements or unproven claims. (Of course this is not always possible, but I try.) For example, in my Algebra 2 class I derive the quadratic formula. In my Precalculus class, I derive all the trig identities we ask the students to know. And in my Calculus class, I “derive” the various rules for differentiation or integration. I often tell the students that copying down the proof is completely optional and the proof will not be tested–”just sit back and relax and enjoy the show!”

But such an approach to mathematical thinking can rarely be applied in a high school Statistics course because statistics rests SO heavily on calculus and so the ‘proofs’ are inaccessible. I’d like to make a startling claim: I claim that 99.99% of AP Statistics students and 99% of AP Statistics teachers cannot even give the function-rule for the normal distribution.

Image used by permission from Interactive Mathematics. Click the image to go there and learn all about the normal distribution!

Image used by permission from Interactive Mathematics. Click the image to go there and learn all about the normal distribution!

In what other math class would you talk about a function ALL YEAR and never give its rule? The normal distribution is the centerpiece (literally!) of the Statistics curriculum. And yet we never even tell them its equation nor where it comes from. That should be some kind of mathematical crime. We might as well call the normal distribution the “magic curve.”

Furthermore, a kid can go through all of AP Statistics and never think about integration, even though that’s what their doing every single time they look up values in those stat tables in the back of the book.

I agree that statistics is more applicable to the ‘real world’ of most of these kids’ lives, and on that point, I agree with Arthur Benjamin. But I would argue that application is not the most important reason we teach mathematics. The most important thing we teach kids is mathematical thinking.

The same thing is true of every other high school subject area. Will most students ever need to know particular historical facts? No. We aim to train them in historical thinking. What about balancing an equation in Chemistry? Or dissecting a frog? They’ll likely never do that again, but they’re getting a taste of what scientists do and how they think. In general, two of our aims as secondary educators are to (1) provide a liberal education for students so they can engage in intelligent conversations with all people in all subject areas in the adult world and (2) to open doors for a future career in a more narrow field of study.

So where does statistics fit into all of this? I think it’s still worth teaching, of course. It’s very important and has real world meaning. But the value I find in teaching statistics feels VERY different than the value I find in teaching every other math class. Like I said before, it feels a bit more like magic than mathematics.**

I argue that Calculus does a better job of training students to think mathematically.

But maybe that’s just how I feel. Maybe we can get Art Benjamin to stop by and weigh in!

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*In our school, and in many other schools, we actually have many more class options beyond Calculus for those students who take Calculus in their Sophomore or Junior year and want to be exposed to even more math.

** Many parts of basic Probability and Statistics can be taught with explanations and proof, namely the discrete portions–and this should be done. But working with continuous distributions can only be justified using Calculus.

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7 thoughts on “Why Calculus still belongs at the top

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  4. I agree that Calculus still belongs at the top.

    The debate is an old one. Paul Campbell of Beloit College (my old grad school summer roommate) wrote this article: “Calculus is crap,” Journal of Undergraduate Mathematics and its Applications, 27 (4):415{430, 2006. Then Underwood Dudley wrote this rejoinder: “Calculus isn’t crap,” Journal of Undergraduate Mathematics and its Applications, 29 (1):1{4, 2008.

    The mountains in the landscape of the history of Mathematics are Geometry (Euclid), Analysis & Calculus (Descartes, Newton, Leibniz), Abstraction (Cauchy, Cantor, Hilbert), and Loss of Certainty (Gödel, Turing).

    Statistics is very important in applications. Even those who never produce statistics need to recognize statistical lies, as Darrell Huff points out so well in his classic (1954) book How to Lie with Statistics. But Statistics is like Physics: It’s not Mathematics, but an application of Mathematics.

    If you’re arguing that Statistics should replace Calculus, you’re climbing the wrong mountain.

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