Something to Improve Math Instruction

4/03/2005 12:36:00 am

Nancy McKeon has a post over at Random Thoughts that raises an issue I think math teachers all over the world face:

I suspect the problem goes far beyond our country's minority population. I see it in the students in the college where I teach. Many of the students do not come to college prepared to do college level math. I am talking here about white male students coming out of Louisiana high schools.

As the article says, we have to do something to improve math instruction and help all our students with math. The decision at my school has been to lower expectations. We will no longer require students to take a college algebra class, opting to offer a more "practical" type of math instead.

Somehow, I don't think that is the answer.

To be flip, I think the "answer" is to raise the bar, not lower it. Not being so flip, the answer is more multifaceted. We've had a similar problem at my school and we've decided to tackle it on several fronts.

Encourage more students to take advanced math. Success is most dependant on effort and the willingness to learn.

Improved student performance through better pedagogy. We learn from each other by observing each other's classes. We collectively implement a research based teaching strategy each year. We choose and deliver workshops to each other. (Teaching strategies, overcoming test anxiety, whatever we determine our students need from us.) And we market and encouage students to sign up for AP courses.

We've also reached out to our Jr. High feeder schools to work collaboratively. Toward this end we have a full day workshop together, just the math folks, once each year .... well .... actually, this is year 1. ;-)

Anyway, that's the plan. Time will tell if it makes a difference.

Nancy also says that her school is looking at offering "a more practical type of math" course in the place of algebra. That's not such a bad idea. Not every high school student will go on to post secondary studies or pursue a career that requires knowledge of advanced math. I think these students most need to know the mathematics necessary to be responsible citizens: probability and statistics.

In Manitoba all students take the same math course from K-9. In grades 10-12 they self select one of three paths: Precalculus (exactly what it sounds like), Applied Math (the focus is on solving problems in context with the aid of technology so that students can focus on understanding and working with mathematical concepts), and Consumer Math (has a little bit of algebra and trig but mostly focuses on the mathematics of income and debt, mortgages, investments, statistics, taxation, etc.). There are problems with this system, but it does have the virtue of recognizing that students pursuing different career paths require different types of mathematical knowledge.

Another thing that would really help this situation would be college and university professors communicating to curriculum designers exactly what skills they find students lacking and help the high school curriculum designers create a curriculum that matches the needs they identify.

Our curriculum is about to go through another major revision. I understand that there has been a consultation among educational professionals at the different levels. I hope the result is a positive one.

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