Wednesday, June 25, 2014

When Am I Ever Going to Need This?

Jordan Enberg writes in “How Not To Be Wrong - the Power of Mathematical Thinking”  that the best answer to the age old “When am I ever going to need this” question is: tennis. If you want to play tennis you have to do a lot of boring practice to get good. The implication being that you should practice math because it builds up your thinking muscles. That is probably true. For those that play a lot of tennis and work at the skills needed to get better I assume that they really WANT TO play tennis. Enberg’s analogy to math flops because most students once they reach their teenage years would rather take out the garbage than do math.* The problem with it is that there are other more interesting ways to build the same muscles especially for those students more interested in the softer sciences. Children will build their math power if they see a reason to do it. Just because math is cool to people like Jordan Enberg and many others (including me) who want students to really, really like math, It isn’t going to work unless the students see a need for math. 

My favorite example for this is Green Globs (see my blog about it.)  Green Globs is terrific at motivating students to learn how functions work. But the joys of learning functions is not the main reason they want to learn about them. I always tell my students that the reason they should learn about functions is because in two weeks they will be involved in the Great Green Globs Contest and will need to learn to play Globs well enough to help their team win the contest. Since the math in Globs is intrinsically interesting for most students, they are willing to learn what it takes to do well - just like in tennis. In that blog entry I told you the story of Guillermo the failing math student who managed to get a perfect score of 8191 points by knocking down all thirteen globs with one function. What I didn’t tell you is how many students were inspired by Guillermo to improve their scores because they really wanted to learn the math needed to score higher. Now winning the Green Globs contest is a small incentive compared to how we want math to inspire students to really want to do something significant in the world. What is it that inspires kids to want to learn important math that will help them to achieve their personal goals? By creating real world projects as the central goal of curriculums! The math curriculum that almost everyone uses was set up in 1892 by a group of academics known as the Committee of Ten and hasn’t really changed in over a hundred years. Isn’t it time that something new, that students WANT TO buy into becomes the default curriculum? A curriculum that will encourage areas of study that students are passionate about.

At the college level, Roger Schank has “built story-centered curriculums meant to teach practical business by creating simulated experiences. The idea is to deliver it online around the world, using mentors who speak the students’ language. No classes. no lectures. No tests. Graduates get an MBA degree […] The idea is to help people launch their own business or go to work.” (page 58 - Teaching Minds.)

This doesn’t mean that the conventional curriculum doesn’t work. My Columbia Prep teaching days made me realize that there were plenty of students who wanted to take on the Royal Road to Calculus and I say more power to them! What I’m suggesting is what Ronald Wolk writes about in "Wasting Minds: Our Education System is Failing and What we Can do About It." We should develop an alternative curriculum that empowers students to really take advantage of math in ways that are appropriate for them.

*Karim Ani of said this during his presentation at the NCTM conference in New Orleans last April.

Roger Schank. Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science can Save our Schools
See also Roger’s blog about how to redesign high schools.