Friday tidbits

Happy Friday! Hope everyone has their kids registered for the AMC next week. If you haven’t already subscribed to the AMC problem-a-day from the MAA, you should! It’ll keep you sharp :-).

Here are a few nice things seen ’round the web recently:

  • The Scrambler, by Dan Meyer & co. Here, Dan challenges us to analyze a classic carnival ride, and asks us to predict where you end up at the end of the ride. And by Dan & “co”, I mean “comment” folks who have generated lots of fun solutions and applets. Dan made a great interactive version here, too.

  • And finally, this lengthy article “Reflections on mathematics and Democracy” by Lynn Arthur Steen is well worth the time [ht: Gene Chase]. He thoughtfully discusses the need for math education among the citizenship. Is “usefulness” to the democracy the highest goal of secondary math education? Do we aim to create quantitatively literate citizens? Or do we put them on the Calculus track and prepare them for college-level STEM careers? Does teaching “quantitative literacy” even count as Mathematics with a capital M? This is obviously something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

Ten years ago I addressed the first question posed to this panel in Mathematics and Democracy—a collection of essays from a variety of professionals both inside and outside mathematics.4 (These essays are available for free downloading on the MAA website.) The chief message of this volume is that the mathematics taught in school bears little relationship to the mathematics needed for active citizenship. That mathematics we called quantitative literacy (QL) to contrast it with traditional school mathematics which, historically, is the mathematics students needed to prepare for calculus.

Mathematics and quantitative literacy are distinct but overlapping domains. Whereas mathematics’ power derives from its generality and abstraction, QL is anchored in specific contexts and real world data. An alternative framing of the challenge for this panel is to ask whether perhaps QL might be a more effective approach to high school mathematics for all.

What we forget, however, is that when NCTM initiated its standards work, most mathematics teachers did not actually believe in the goal of teaching mathematics to all high school students. Whereas now we argue about how much and what kind of mathematics to teach in high school, three decades ago debate centered on who should learn high school mathematics. At that time, the curriculum was designed to efficiently sort students into those who were capable of learning high school mathematics and those who were not. So between grades 7 and 9, somewhere between one-third and one-half of the students were placed in a course called General Math—an enervating, pointless review of arithmetic.

Another decade has passed, and our ambitions are now much higher: a common core for all, with everyone emerging from high school ready for college. In one generation, the political view of high school mathematics has progressed from something only some need (or can) learn to a core subject in which all students can and must become proficient. That’s quite a rapid change in ends, which has been matched by a major change in means. The very idea of a common curriculum enforced with common assessments was all but unthinkable back in the 1980s.


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