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It's Time for Change in Mathematics Education
K–12 education in the United States is in the same position that buggy whip manufacturers were in at the beginning of the 20th century. That is, its days are numbered, and we can nearly count them on one hand. We can continue making metaphorical buggy whips, and become an oddity at first and then a nuisance later, or we can join the revolution and become productive again. Then, the revolution was industrial; today, it's technological. In 1910, many wanted to resist the instant changes to society's needs that the automobile brought, and in 2010, we face the same challenges of quickly adjusting to society's ever-increasing dependence on technology.
In elementary, middle, and high schools across the nation, we are still attempting to teach manipulative algebra to all mathematics students when the majority of students need lessons in searching for the appropriate software on the Internet to solve problems.
The handheld scientific calculator (HP-35), introduced in 1973, removed the need for students to learn trigonometric tables or to know how to manually calculate approximations of square roots, but it took several years for policymakers and teachers to accept this fate. The Texas Instrument Model 89 (TI-89) calculator eliminated the need to do any algebraic manipulation or consult tables of integration, but more than 10 years later, our curriculum is still mainly algebraic manipulation. The TI-89 calculator allows users to solve equations and arrive at exact answers (for example, v2 or p) instead of approximations, and will do any rote mathematics problem through graduate-level mathematics. Its only weakness is that it can't (yet) read a word problem and use the correct applications to solve it; that task still requires human input.
The proliferation of Internet sites and search engines with modern graphical interfaces made the TI-89 obsolete within 10 years of its 1998 release. Now the same programs available on the TI-89 calculator are available online. One simply researches a similar word problem, finds a model to use, and then locates the appropriate software application to arrive at a correct answer. This can all be done with logical, sequential thinking skills and not the least bit of knowledge of algebraic manipulation, but we continue to focus our curricula on skills that we no longer need.
We still need "pure" mathematics courses to prepare future mathematicians, engineers, and scientists, but for 90 percent of the population, we need to teach proper data mining and how to use that data to solve problems. We can't quantify the skills we require from the next generation, and we can't measure them by standardized tests, paper-and-pencil tests, or even "practicals": we can only measure them by outcomes, which may be several years in the future.
I'm reminded of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. In order to save the world, the adults (that is, the education establishment) had to have children (albeit the very brightest) solve the problem, because the children had no knowledge of limits, whereas the educated adults were trapped "inside the box."
We need to listen to students so that they can tell us what we can do to help them acquire the skills they will need to solve issues associated with climate change, diminishing renewable resources, overpopulation, infectious diseases, and problems we have yet to identify. Instead, we continue with the same instructional curricula, which was itself a half-century too late, that were developed for a post-agrarian society.
Just as Henry Ford, a farm boy from Michigan, helped revolutionize the world and made buggy whip manufactures find another calling, the people from Silicon Valley have made our current education curricula obsolete. We can't keep making the same mistake of tweaking outdated practices and expecting them to miraculously work—or, even worse, not acknowledging they are broken.
Albert Einstein said, "Most people see what is and never see what could be." We need to completely discard our perception of K–12 education and start fresh. If we are to remain a highly educated society, we must design the new curricula that will prepare our children with the critical-thinking skills necessary to solve not only our current problems, but also the ones yet to come.
Carl Clark is a high school mathematics teacher at Palm Bay High School in Melbourne, Fla.
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