Math or quantitative literacy?

The traditional math curriculum is too abstract for most students, argue Sol Garfunkel of the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications and David Mumford, an emeritus professor of mathematics at Brown, in a New York Times op-ed.

Today, American high schools offer a sequence of algebra, geometry, more algebra, pre-calculus and calculus . . .

. . . how often do most adults encounter a situation in which they need to solve a quadratic equation? Do they need to know what constitutes a “group of transformations” or a “complex number”? Of course professional mathematicians, physicists and engineers need to know all this, but most citizens would be better served by studying how mortgages are priced, how computers are programmed and how the statistical results of a medical trial are to be understood.

Students could learn math in the context of real-world problems, they writes.

Imagine replacing the sequence of algebra, geometry and calculus with a sequence of finance, data and basic engineering. In the finance course, students would learn the exponential function, use formulas in spreadsheets and study the budgets of people, companies and governments. In the data course, students would gather their own data sets and learn how, in fields as diverse as sports and medicine, larger samples give better estimates of averages. In the basic engineering course, students would learn the workings of engines, sound waves, TV signals and computers. Science and math were originally discovered together, and they are best learned together now.

Applied math students would learn abstract reasoning skills as well as useable knowledge, they argue.  Teaching only abstract math is like teaching Latin instead of Spanish and German.

In math, what we need is “quantitative literacy,” the ability to make quantitative connections whenever life requires (as when we are confronted with conflicting medical test results but need to decide whether to undergo a further procedure) and “mathematical modeling,” the ability to move practically between everyday problems and mathematical formulations (as when we decide whether it is better to buy or lease a new car).

Tracking is taboo in schools. I can envision massive resistance to splitting students into abstract math and applied math streams. And Common Core Standards enshrine the traditional math sequence as the way to teach all students.

What to do you think, math teachers and math mavens?

“Relevant” always seems to mean “dumbed-down,” writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.

The 21st homework problem in a 1898 algebra textbook and the 21st assignment in a contemporary integrative math book are up on Out In Left Field.  Note that the modern assignment is “relevant” — and simple.

Today’s math texts are filled with real-world problems, though usually not very real, adds OILF.



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