The formula for changing math education

6/30/2009 12:20:00 pm

Listen to Arthur:

2 min 59 sec

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  1. Thanks for sharing this video Darren. I totally agree with what the video says. The majority of our Math stufdents would benefit far more from a deep understanding of probability and statistics. At most 30% of our students ever need to be prepared for Calculus but our curriculum is designed to prepare ALL students for Calculus.

  2. I also agree with the ideas of the video, to a certain extent. The vast majority of students do not need calculus (though there are some benefits to taking one semester of it). But I don't think we should necessarily gear ALL students toward Probability/Statistics either.

    That's just taking the problem we have now, and changing it - not solving it. Those who need Calculus should still be taught Calculus, even at the high school level (if they're ready for it); they can pick up some Probability and Statistics later.

  3. I agree that prob and stats would serve a greater number of students. I also think we rush too many through too many topics before they are ready.

    The problem I have is when do we make the decision who should be on the stats path and who should be on the calculus path? I don't want to take options away. Nor do I want to create more "mathematically wounded" (to borrow a phrase.

  4. Oh, that open parenthesis is going to bother me...

  5. As a part-time commodity option trader / educator I'd agree statistics / probability is much more important than calculus. Maybe even 65% more relevant.

  6. Thanks all for chiming in.

    I agree with the sentiment that we shouldn't eliminate precalculus/calculus from the high school curriculum. The thing is, statistics and probability is really only given lip service in the curriculum; the content covered is generally shallow and the problems students look at are generally disconnected from their real life experiences where a knowledge of probability and statistics would be useful.

    @Terry I think 30% might even be optimistic. It might be less than 20% when you consider the number of high school graduates that go on to University and that an even smaller number of those students pursue studies requiring knowledge of calculus.

    @Jackie I wouldn't make the decision for them; I'd let them self-select. (Sorry, I can't edit the parenthesis. ;-) you could always delete the comment and republish but I kind of like it the way it is. ;-))

  7. I agree as well that calculus should not be the automatic capstone course in high school. I think a much greater emphasis on probability and statistics throughout high school math would serve our students well, not just in their future majors/careers, but in order to be effective citizens. Dealing with data is critical in order to be an informed citizen.

    I would suggest it is much, much lower than 20%, which means that we currently are doing a disservice to possibly 90% of our students.

    Having said that, I worry about Darren's suggestion that kids can self-select between the two tracks. Inevitably, students will rely on us (as well as their parents and college admissions officers) to make that decision, and I worry about our historical tendency to "track" students based on race or demographics or perceived limitations.

    I guess I wonder how necessary is it to have calculus in high school? (Truly wondering, not just rhetorical.) I think you could create a reasonably broad and very deep mathematics curriculum that shifts from the current pre-engineering/pre-math-professor curriculum we have now, and still have students ready for freshmen calculus if that's the direction they'd like to go. It would benefit all students without leaving those students (10%?) who will need calculus in the lurch. I know when I was in high school the college I chose said not to bother taking the AP Calc exam, as they didn't feel it matched the level of Calc they were teaching. That might be the exception, but I think it shows that even at fairly selective colleges (and this was one), you don't have to have calculus in high school in order to be successful in calculus-based careers.

  8. Great Post Darren, it sounds a lot like the great "Which is better Pre-Calc or Applied debate" that goes on here. I always ask kids that are in Pre-Calc if they are planning to take Calculus in post - secondary. It is amazing how many are in Pre - Calc without any intention of taking Calc. Seems kinda wrong to me.

    One last thought is that if more people learned more about stats, then at least we'd have less people wondering why 75% of students can't be above average.

  9. First, thanks for your blog.

    Second, I too like the AB video and have posted it in my blog.

    You work has given me some insight about my teaching and I think other teachers will benefit from what you are writing.

    I have added your site to my education portal at

    Let me know if you have any questions and thanks for the work your organization is doing,

    Steu Mann, M. Ed.

  10. Something relevant about math education:

    First half of following article was also cross-posted on Huffington Post titled: Let's Ban English in School ... Except in English Class

    HuffPost version:

    Jeff Goldstein, Center Director,
    Nat'l Center for Erth and SPace Sci Education

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Very interesting video. I remember when I was in high school my pre-calc teacher decided who would continue on to calculus and who would change to stats. Interestingly enough stats was regarded as the class for students who did do well with math, while calculus was for the more advanced students. According to this video it seems like the "less advanced" students ended up in the more beneficial class.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. (I'm assuming those deletions are off-topic, not disagreements.) ;^)

    I guess I'll have to be the first to disagree with the very cool (in his other TED talk) Art Benjamin.

    I teach statistics at a community college. To me, it's not really a math class. Why is the formula for standard deviation what it is? How do we know the area under the standard normal curve = 1? How do we know the points of inflection of that curve are at one standard deviation from the mean? Etc.

    I tell my students that the stat course is part math, part social science, and a great course for being a better citizen - being able to judge the accuracy of things they read.

    It is a good course to have in high schools. I agree with that. And I don't think math should push along just one track, just toward calculus. But I wouldn't replace calculus with statistics. I want people to see more of the beauty of math, and stat won't do that.

    Art said something about moving from analog to discrete. I think that might be a good idea. But I don't think of statistics as discrete math (his claim), although probability can be.

    I don't have a particular answer, but I think his talk was way too simplistic.

  15. @ Sue: Thanks for dropping by and participating in this discussion.

    The deletions you mentioned were made by Ben himself (the authour of those comments). I don't delete any comments from my blog unless they are spam. I encourage disagreement or challenges to my thinking; that's how I learn.

    Naturally a 3 minute talk entitled "The formula for changing math education" is going to be simplistic nonetheless I think Arthur's point is a good one: we tend to underemphasize the branch of mathematics that is most beneficial for every student and overemphasize the branch of math that very few students will need/pursue in their future.

    I think Jeremy summed this up well.

    @Mr. Bennet Loved that closing paragraph; very much to the point.

    @Karl Re: students self-selecting courses. I'm leery of people making choices for (taking choices away from?) students. Experience has taught me a lot; they too have a right to learn from experience, even if it means they choose the "wrong" (?!?) math course. The tenor of your comment suggests you're still undecided about where you stand on this issue. Fair enough. Actually, another of the many reasons I respect and appreciate you sharing your thoughts here.

  16. Hi Darren,
    I just posted on about this post.

  17. I think it's sad that some people seem to think that it's a disservice to teach someone calculus just because they (probably) won't use it in their adult life.

    Sure, don't make it compulsory, and by all means seek to provide some variety, but educating somebody about one of hostory's most significant intellectual achievements is hardly a disservice.

    Of course, many people exposed to calculus simply get through exams as best they can and don't obtain a lasting education, but the same is true for probability and (especially) statistics.