Talking to parents about math education

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What a simple question can reveal

When parents express concern about the state of mathematics teaching and learning in the United States, a simple way to deflect the conversation and gather important insights is to ask what math they use themselves. Chances are that they might mention statistics, as well as basic measurements and checkbook calculations. Most of us don’t use a lot of geometry or calculus in the course of our work. It may also be a good idea to ask parents what they know about the mathematics involved in computer programming, and what suggestions they might make to increase students’ interest in the applications of mathematics. A lot has been written about the conflict between teaching methods and the passion of those who defend either traditionalist or reform-based math. The literature does not suggest that many people have asked parents what they think their students should be learning–aside from the fact that everyone wants their kids to learn enough to do well in college.

Statistics and calculus

Years ago, I asked Clark Kerr, former President of the University of California system, what he thought all undergraduates should learn. His response was “communication skills, statistics, and history.” European math programs, in fact, spend a lot more time on statistics, because the ability to interpret data is an important part of citizenship as well as understanding publications in many technical fields. American schools are much more focused on getting students through calculus. Calculus is our Holy Grail in mathematics, though in other nations statistics and other areas of applied mathematics are considered more useful. Moreover, many teachers agree that calculus is something that colleges teach very well, so it should not be taught in high school.

Changing the temperature of the discussion

Given the heat of many discussions about teaching math, now seems a good time for temperate conversations about the kinds of mathematical skills and problem solving skills that the coming generation of students will need to succeed in technological fields and the social sciences. The next article in this series suggests how a similar conversation with young adults may help garner interest as well as suggest additions to the curriculum.