By Levi Patrick,
posted August 28, 2017 —
The Diminishing Value of Mathematics as
a Discipline. Before I start, let me make one last
reminder: My goal is to maintain the state of doubt (check) and to carry
on systematic and protracted inquiry (forthcoming).
Math Is Everything. Through
laws, policies, and the language we use, we have convinced most of the world
and ourselves that math is everything.
The
No Child Left Behind Act and the more recent revision, the Every Student
Succeeds Act, suggest that mathematics is critical, owing to their requirements
to assess mathematics in grades 3–8 and at least once in grades 9–12. By my
calculation, 42 states explicitly require three or more math credits to
graduate from high school, and many school districts choose to have greater
mathematics requirements for students. We even have our own hypnopedia
(see Huxley’s Brave New World) of
sorts:

“Math
is the language of science, technology, and beauty.”
 “Math
helps us analyze the past and predict the future.”
 “Math
teaches logic, reasoning, and problem solving.”
 “Math
imbues grit and endurance.”
 “Without
math, there is nothing.”
I
wonder if we’ve convinced our students of these beliefs.
Life Support. We
don’t have to do a lot of convincing since the mathematics course is not
optional for most students. Back in 1936, E. Roscoe Sleight argued that a move
away from requiring mathematics should not be of great concern:
I believe I do the subject of Latin no great harm when I state that in
most schools it is not the most popular subject in the entire array of
offerings in our high schools. But here and there we find a teacher who has
made it so interesting that her classes are filled to capacity. If we compare
the applications of Latin with the number of ways in which mathematics may be
used, we have a running start on making it a live interesting subject to the
high school boy and girl. The extent to which mathematics will be in demand in
many schools, so far as the future is concerned, will depend very materially
upon those of us who prepare the teachers, and upon those who teach. It is a
good thing to have something to spur us on, if we will only accept the
challenge.
My apologies to
Latin teachers, but I think that Dr. Sleight made quite a profound point. I’m
left wondering if we would be able to fill our classrooms to capacity if not
for the enrollment and admissions requirements. My honest answer would be no. I
think the demand for mathematics classes and teachers would plummet because we have not done much to convince students
that mathematics matters in any real way.
If you ask a
group of students what math is, they will tell you, "Mathematics is a set
of incomprehensible rules.” We don’t just see students and adults who can’t do
mathematics; we see students and adults who actually fear or hate it. Indeed,
we have done harm.
Not
to be the bearer of bad news, but math, as we know it, might already be on life
support.
The Aftermath. What
would we do if math could no longer be a required course? I find myself
wondering if things would be better. If educators were spurred on to engage in more beautiful, vital, and powerful
(a
la MAA 2015) mathematics, I think we would be just
fine. If we were left with the kinds of teaching that are dull and uninspiring
for students, math would soon pass to the infinite beyond.
As I argued in my first post, we should consider
the basis and consequences of beliefs. If we believe that mathematics is so
important that it must be required, one consequence we must be willing to admit
is that we can now allow ourselves to not be concerned with ensuring that students
would select our course if given the option.
Let’s take one final cue from John Dewey,
who argues that the “origin of thinking is some perplexity, confusion, or
doubt” (1910). We must create opportunities in our classrooms that invoke the
familiar, the perplexing, and the intriguing to make clear the beauty,
vitality, and power of mathematics. The more our classrooms convey this vision
for mathematics, I assure you, math will be alive and well.
Levi Patrick serves Oklahoma as the director of
computer science and secondary mathematics education. He is the vice president
of program for the Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics and serves
NCTM as chair of the Professional Development Services Committee. Patrick
taught eighth grade, algebra 1, and geometry in Oklahoma City and in the Putnam
City Public Schools, developed curriculum and mentoring programs as a
mathematics specialist at the K20 Center for Education and Community Renewal at
the University of Oklahoma, and has been involved in the development of the
#OKMath community (http://OKMathTeachers.com) and the Oklahoma Mathematics
Alliance for the past few years. He and his wife, Roslyn, also an educator,
live in Oklahoma City with their Jack Russell “Terror,” Piper.