Math Education and Pandemic

{Editor’s note: Well, this ends up being quite the little snapshot of the early days of the pandemic, for me. I don’t know why I never quite finished it — probably it had something to do with the world igniting — but it’s OK as is, so I’m publishing it. Further years of teaching have only confirmed for me the soundness of the basic thrust.}

The global COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief a number of failings of the American system, and one of them is the thrust of math education. It’s been obvious for years that the current paradigm favors abstract symbolic manipulation over practical and intuitive math sense. The explosive propagation of the coronavirus, and the stumbling incoherent response by governmental and business leaders, makes clear that this choice has carried a real human cost.

Put bluntly: It’s time to stop fetishizing the attainment of calculus as the epitome of math education. I taught Precalculus for two years. Looking back, I wish I had hit harder on the chapter on exponential functions. I wish I had done more with real data, more with spreadsheets, more with graphs and interpretations of graphs. I wish I’d spent a couple of months on it, instead of a couple of weeks.

I’d claw the time back by jettisoning, wholesale, the utterly useless chapter on finding polynomial roots. Everything worthwhile in that chapter could be handled in, maybe, four days. I’d probably trim or skip conic sections, too.

Given the chance, I’d lean hard into number sense, too. It’s becoming clear that people are dying because Americans can’t distinguish thousands, millions, and billions. They don’t understand rates-of-change or exponentials. They have no patience for numerical analyses. We make too many judgments using the hard-wired story-telling circuitry of our semi-evolved monkey hindbrain, and we don’t use the vast effective mental technology that’s been invented since 1600.

Americans doubt experts, and why not? We’ve spent decades “educating” them that experts are high priests of a religion beyond their comprehension. When that false god proves fallible, why should they continue to believe? We as educators have failed (miserably) to de-mystify mathematics. We accept the narrative that there are math kids and not-math kids, and we adjust to the confines of that view. Mathematics is both the birthright and the duty of all humankind, and the structures we’ve accepted simply do not recognize that.

My top-of-my-head new Precalculus course would be … well, first, I’d jettison that idea that there should be a precalculus class. A whole year in service of a later course that many won’t even take? Bah. Instead, this is what I’d like to see the mid-level high school math class cover.

  • First quarter: number sense and scale
  • Second quarter: graphs
  • Third quarter: exponentials
  • Fourth quarter: statistics
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