Is Math Really Important?
Welcome to the math for teaching program blog
As the director of the Harvard Extension School’s Mathematics for Teaching Graduate Program I have been able to work with hundreds of current and aspiring math teachers over the past decade. I’ve had many interesting conversations about math, math education, and the nature and art (!) of teaching and learning. In this blog I hope to share with you some of the thoughts, insights, and questions that have come up in these conversations. I will also ask friends and colleagues to share their thoughts on these topics too and to contribute to this blog as well. If you have an interest in adding to our discussion, please get in touch.
As a starting point, let’s pose a question
What is mathematics really about, and why do we make students study it at all? Over the summer a somewhat provocative article showed up in the New York Times, written by Andrew Hacker, questioning the need for studying algebra. My immediate reaction was, “Here we go again.” It’s easy to ask the question about any particular topic in mathematics, and we all have stories of when students ask, “What’s this good for?”
Anecdotally, this question seems to hit math classes more often than history or English classes. Part of my response to this is that math is critically involved in so much of humanity’s progress that it is almost impossible to conceive of how we would have gotten this far without mathematics. Unfortunately, that hardly makes any one student feel better if they don’t believe that they are going to be adding to that progress in a scientific way themselves.
Then there’s the strength of mind argument—that studying mathematics contributes to building one’s brain muscle in a particularly effective way. A counterargument to this is that there are many ways to exercise one’s mind. Why do we ask everyone to run laps on a track if some students would rather work out by swimming or rock climbing?
Fractal images: math, art, or both?
And finally, one of the most fundamental reasons to study math is doing math, exploring math, and creating math can be among some of the most enjoyable things that one does with one’s mind, full of fun, interesting twists and turns, amazing vistas, and clever connections. Done with students in a way that’s unfortunately not necessarily the norm, (i.e., not as simply a repetition of facts and formulas aimed at a conquering a limited set of tasks) math can be a joyful, creative endeavor, one that can be shared with friends and strangers alike.
So, here’s your first question ...
Why do we ask students to study math? And if you’d like to stick more closely to Andrew Hacker’s original question, why do we ask all of our students to study algebra?