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I’ve always believed that part of my job as a teacher was to prepare my students to be lifelong learners. Students in school today can expect to have more than one career during their working lives. This makes it imperative that they are comfortable training for a new career. For this reason, students leaving high school should know how to think and analyze information. Knowing just “the basics” will not be enough.
I have been thinking about this in relationship to math education since reading the article “The Story About the Man Who Tried to Kill Math in America” published in The Atlantic. Reading this article led me to realize that in the US little has changed in many math classes since we entered the 21st century. American students still fall far behind their international counterparts in math. Part of the reason for this is that our math teachers have been relying on teaching content that does not match what is taught in other first world countries.
We have a long history of teaching only the math courses that we think students will need to get a job. This might have worked during the early to mid 20th century when most workers went into jobs in retail and manufacturing. But since the space race began this is no longer true. Technology is all around us and its development requires mathematical knowledge beyond basic algebra and geometry.
In my experience we have mathematics programs available to teachers that go beyond memorizing basic facts and solving simple word problems. But one belief often slows down the progress of embracing these programs. It is the “that’s not how I learned math and I did fine” belief system. This thought process is held by many parents, teachers, and politicians. But aren’t we as teachers supposed to be teaching using best practices to assure that our students are successful in the 21st century?
Let me give you a few ideas of what I mean about mathematical thinking and its importance in the lives of our students.
1. At one point in time, it was common for students to spend a lot of time memorizing basic arithmetic facts. This was absolutely necessary before calculators were available. It is also true that before calculators, most students would go into jobs that only required basic arithmetic. Careers in science and math either didn’t exist or were only open to the best and the brightest students. Yet to this day, I hear math teachers say that students should not be promoted until they know their basic arithmetic facts. My questions are: Why hold a student back for lack of knowledge that can be easily obtained using a four function calculator? How many jobs require you to use arithmetic without access to a calculator?
2. Algebra is more than solving for x. It is a way of thinking and solving problems. Something the world has a lot of currently. If taught throughout the math curriculum, not just in isolation in high school many more students would be comfortable with mathematical thinking and might pursue taking higher level math courses later in life. I have taught classes with inclusion students who were getting math support in a resource room and was able to teach all of these students how to solve equations using algebra tiles. It is possible when a teacher knows a multitude of ways to present concepts to reach most if not all of her students.
3. Too many of our students leave high school without the ability to get a decent paying job. Many have to take remedial math courses before they can even apply to a costly technical school to train as auto mechanics or computer technicians. Many of these high school graduates would be able to go directly into technical schools if they had been exposed to math concepts throughout their K-12 education.
In closing let me suggest that teachers and parents alike do what works for our children- not just what is comfortable for us.