Why do we continue to teach…Part 2

Well, it took a bit longer to get to part 2 than I had planned. Things like finishing a school year and planning for next year took some precedence. Regardless, if you need a refresher on part 1, here it is.  The premise of the problem is “Why do we continue to teach math that has little application to a “normal” person?”  The first post went the route of justifying why people are asking the question and the problems with the foundation of the question.  This post now leads into what other teachers are saying.  To clarify, I polled my staff and some of other math teachers around Wisconsin.  Their thoughts ranged from dumbfounded, to overly traditional, to outright angry.  Most of the teachers had very similar comments.  Finally, my closing thoughts on this topic.  I must say, it ranks up there as one of my least favorite questions to answer.

The overly traditional teacher:

I must admit that this teacher is the one I would not want discussing this prompt with others.  Why must we teach post Geometry mathematics when there are programs that can do it for us?  “Because students need to know this information.  It is important for being a mathematician.  It is what pure mathematics is about.”

Personally, I feel these teachers are so far off base it is scary.  Why does a student need to know this information?  Where can we show students they will actually apply these concepts.  In my life, as a math teacher, outside of school I have not had the pleasure of factoring a degree 3 polynomial.  Nor do I ever feel like I will. The final two comments made from what I am calling the overly traditional teacher bother me the most.  It is rare that we have “mathematicians” come out of school.  It is one of the highest need majors in careers yet one of the least populated in post-secondary education.  Being a mathematician isn’t even about pure mathematics.  A general mathematician doesn’t sit around solving proofs on his coffee table.  A mathematician applies mathematical theories and techniques to solve practical problems in business, engineering, the sciences, and other fields (www.bls.gov).  Overly traditional teachers tend to feel they are producing life-long math people.  They miss the point of mathematics.  It is an area of study that can enhance other fields by making them more efficient and effective.  Since they miss the point, they also miss many of the best ways to meet the needs of their students.  Their flaw is not with a lack of instructional ability but with a lack of knowledge of their students and because of that, instruction that can engage students.

The Politically Correct teacher:

It was a struggle to put a name to these responses.  Partly because I agree with their answer to the question but don’t feel they have hit it all.   These teachers believe we need to teach post Geometry mathematics because we are working on their “Critical thinking skills.”  When they get in the real world (no matter what their job is) they are going to be required to think critically and solve problems on the fly.  The better their critical thinking skills are the better chance they have of advancing in their career.

On the whole it is hard to disagree.  However, there are many, far more engaging ways to teach critical thinking skills than higher level mathematics.  Why would we teach the math and be so specific to the solutions and methodologies if it was about critical thinking?  Critical thinking skills can be taught in many ways.  Sites such as www.criticalthinking.org list numerous strategies that engage students without teaching mathematics.  Math in itself doesn’t teach critical thinking.  Students will perform better if they have the ability to think critically.  It is much more of a shared relationship.  Does math help develop these skills.  There is no question about it.  I would argue more than any other subject in Secondary instruction.

The honest Abe with a touch of angry teacher:

The responses from these teachers were all well stated and…long.  It makes the most sense to simply put one of their responses in here since I cannot say it better.

“I was hoping not to reply to this,  as this whole line of questioning just reflects how little these people know, understand or care about math and it is very frustrating.  We have to justify ourselves…why math?  Really?  Why do we teach anything then?  

My first response would be how little they care about the development of our students reasoning and logical thinking ability as they develop their minds in adolescence.  Yes I understand a Geometry proof or multistep complex type solving equation my never be directly used in that students future, but the ability to think and reason clearly is very important.   Do they wish our students to never know how to make a political candidate decision based on logic, or decide if as a family they should spend a large amout to have surgery on a pet, or let the animal pass. We need thinking skills and math helps in that development.

Second,  I would offer to come over to their house, dismantle their TV dish or cable, ask for their cell phone, and tell them you will be happy to dispose of them since math is so unimportant.  Lets’ take away some of those benefits that have been given since you don’t’ care why they exist.  Okay, so not every student is going to come up with the next and best greatest math idea.  But should we not at least proceed on the premise that someone could be that person. We should at least give them a chance to improve the next generations lives, maybe figure out pollution problems, energy usage, etc…  No math, no improvements!

Finally, I would tell them how sorry I feel for them.  They truly do not see math for the beauty and wonder it offers in their lives.  Math is everywhere.  It is integral part of all our lives if you just know where to look, and be open for it.  If you have no base understanding, like Geometry and Algebra you will never see that wonder.  If they choose to close their minds to what is all around them, then just let them know how you feel sorry for their loss, but don’t let your close mindfulness affect our students.”

Although the anger clearly spews from this particular teacher the depth of the response is precious.  I can’t make this better than it is.  What needs to be said is that I side closest with this teacher.  We teach post Geometric math because we need people who can make the change in the world they want to see.  We don’t know who they are or when or if they will gain an interest in math.  What I can guarantee you is that if we don’t teach these topics we won’t have those who can make the advancements we want to see.  This is a question that needs to be put to rest.  Math has the same importance as reading in many ways.  Each subject by itself doesn’t mean much.  However, tied to other content and math and reading become of such an importance that without them progress would subside.

Instead of asking why we need to teach them, we should be listing all the things that would happen if we didn’t.  I don’t think there is enough room on a blog for that though.