Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Cattle Drive: Too Much Calculus

Reading Pamela Burdman's piece at Hechinger Report: Numbers evoke joy and wonder, why doesn’t math class? got me thinking.

I have already argued that we push too many kids to Algebra too early. Now to complain about the other extreme.

High school students are often driven like cattle through their math courses. Those who can withstand the cattle drive make it to the fertile pastures of calculus. Sadly, many of the herd don’t make it and are left along the side of the trail.

Not every student belongs in calculus. Though students who plan to be engineers, physicists, mathematicians, or economists need calculus, many others have abilities or interests that make them better suited to other mathematical destinations. The cattle drive hurts kids who lose interest in a destination they don’t care about.

Don't get me wrong: I love calculus. It is beautiful, useful, fun stuff, but it isn't for everyone. Everyone should master Algebra, but not everybody needs to master calculus. And honestly, many of the topics in Algebra II only exist to prepare students for calculus. This doesn't mean creating a dumbed-down track, but maybe there are other options for rigorous pathways.

Why not map out different mathematical pathways for different kids? After Algebra I, maybe some kids would be better served by courses in discrete math, probability, statistics, logic, or some other mathematical topics. Ideally, students would be able to switch back and forth between pathways if enough foundational skills were shared between parallel courses.

I know I'm tilting at windmills, but I'd like to see the cattle drive identify some other destinations; there is lots of interesting, useful math out there. Too many people think they hate math because they hated the cattle drive they were on in high school.

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