Prioritizing on Irrelevance Has Real Consequences

Following up on my math rant from yesterday, an opinion piece from the Post’s Answer Sheet blog adds some thoughts to the idea that our traditional math curriculum, as well as how math is taught in most schools, needs a major overhaul.

Now, calculus sounds essential to pre-eminence in science and engineering. It sounds like a gateway to the enticing “jobs of the future.” But here’s the reality. Other than high-school calculus teachers, adults no longer perform the low-level mechanics (months studying various integration techniques) that comprise high-school calculus. The tiny number of adults who do use Calculus in their careers compute integrals and derivatives … with computers.  Online resources like Wolfram|Alpha handle these tasks instantly — everywhere except in our classrooms. When it comes to calculus, a strong case can be made that we should do less.

Calculus reflects our true dichotomy in education. In a very different world where all of us have ready access to content and computational resource, we can have kids study things whose importance has faded or disappeared, or we can re-think what’s essential. To be specific, kids who take Calculus, generally forego statistics – a discipline that’s essential for citizenship and immensely valuable for careers. Organizations don’t need employees who can do integrals by hand using trig identities, but they’d love to hire young adults who can analyze data. With over 50 percent of recent college graduates under- or flat-out unemployed, prioritizing on irrelevance has real consequences. [emphasis is mine]

That rational thinking comes from Ted Dintersmith, a venture capitalist who organized, funded and produced the well-received documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” and co-authored a book titled “Most Likely to Succeed:  Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era” (one I need to add to my reading list).

I also loved his description of the place given to actual educators and students at last month’s White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools in which he participated.

After the big-footprint speakers departed from the summit, we heard from compelling teachers, students, school leaders, district superintendents, and non-profit heads. They brought vision and bold ideas to the White House, despite being allocated just 120 seconds to describe their life’s work. The irony of a rapid-fire sequence of “talk at you lectures” on the topic of re-imagined learning wasn’t lost on this crowd.

Read the whole post for more fresh thinking on math in American schools.