A tweet from Scott pointed me to an article from his local paper which discusses how community colleges in the Seattle area are rethinking the types of math courses required of their students. Currently about half of their incoming students must take remedial classes, and few of them even pass those.

About the same time a former student left me a comment on Facebook: “Today was day 10585 in a row that I didn’t use algebra.” I suppose that was his way of praising my skills as a math teacher. :-)

Anyway, the leaders of Washington’s community colleges are asking some fundamental questions about how much math, and what subjects, should be required, both to be admitted and to earn a degree. Their answer is that there is no one answer.

However, there are some bigger issues underlying that discussion, as well as the remark from my former student. The problem with the mathematics curriculum in our schools has less to do with the subjects taught than it does with how we teach the subjects.

For the most part, we teach mathematics as a mechanical process. For each problem, student build a machine, usually replicating the same machines created centuries ago, toss in some raw materials, and crank out the “right” answer. Now repeat the process twenty more times for homework and please don’t mention how bored you are.

Sometimes we dress them up the machine as an “authentic” problem (which is largely what Common Core tries to do). But kids realize pretty quickly that the extra words and faux “real world” language are nothing but diversions. Eventually we’ll determine the correct machine and necessary numbers, and crank away.

On top of that, we still for the most part ask kids to perform these mechanical processes on paper (show your work, and it better follow the same steps in my answer key). Rather than passing those tasks off to computers (including the one in their pocket) and instead spend the time on investigating real problems using mathematics as a tool to find solutions.

Solutions that are messy, often with the right answer being “it depends”, problems that are interesting, possibly personal to the kids, and which very often lead to even more questions.

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