In a New York Times article by Professor Andrew Hacker of Queens College, City University in New York, he argues that requiring a pure mathematical knowledge of our students is pulling an already rising educational tide over their heads.
When I first saw the article, I assumed I was going to read an op-ed on the inefficacy of math education and perhaps even a call to lower our already abysmal math standards. As a self-proclaimed math and science nerd, this hit a nerve.
Hacker, however, is very careful to qualify that math education is critical to the support and maintenance of developed societies (a point we agree on), but he worries that the strong focus we place on pure math is what causes problems.
In my dealings with students of varying backgrounds, I have experienced that a large gap often exists between theory and application for many students. Most students cannot see the immediate applicability of a theory or model unless given some real situation it would apply to.
On this I would also agree with Hacker, although I would also question whether or not all academic education then suffers from this exact same dilemma. What then makes a theoretical knowledge of other disciplines more accessible to students in ways that math is failing? Is the problem something we should be addressing earlier on in a students cognitive path (i.e. inquiry based learning)?
As far as the theoretical nature of math education, I still believe we have to establish from a very early outset the very formal grounding that mathematics is built upon.
Math is an extension of logic, and if we were to take its formalism from education, I worry the tide would only deepen in math as well as other subjects.
Instead of worrying about the formality of notations and pedagogy, we should be challenging students with real world projects and data sets that apply what they learn in meaningful ways and give them the satisfaction of accomplishment that regurgitation cannot provide.
Is Algebra Necessary?
As American students wrestle with algebra, geometry and calculus — often losing that contest — the requirement of higher mathematics comes into question.