Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford are excellent scholars and educators of mathematics. In a profoundly wise and engaging article published in the New York Times on August 24 2011 they discuss how to fix math education in the US.
In the article the authors decry the deplorable performance of US students in various international tests. The national response to remedy low student achievement was the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Law, which requires public school students to pass standardized math by 2014. The law punishes schools if students do not pass. President Obama has also been drumming up support for his signature education reform program, Race To The TOP.
The article I think inadvertently raises fundamental practical and philosophical questions about education. They observe that the worry of poor grades or under achievement in math by US students is founded on the assumption that there is such a thing as a universal body of mathematical knowledge and skills that students must demonstrate competent mastery of.
The authors note that math curriculum is highly abstract and largely unhelpful in preparing students for different careers. This I can say with confidence is true for curriculum in all disciplines. Education as delivered through the school curriculum is largely irrelevant to the world of work and the challenges of ordinary day-to-day living.
The authors ask for instance how often most adults encounter situations in which they must apply a quadratic equation to solve a real life problem. But they observe that all adults need to understand how mortgages are priced. As investing adults, we all need to understand how to read a company’s balance sheet.
At the core of these questions is one major concern or worry. How can we make education relevant to the learner? Or more fundamentally, what kind of education will be relevant for work and daily living?
Many employers rate that skills and knowledge of most high school or college graduates as fair or poor. And I have met and interviewed many.
There is in a sense a crisis in education. It is a crisis of relevance as well as substantive useful knowledge and skills necessary to strive in a globalized and complex economy.
The authors give a brilliant example of how we could make math relevant and fun to learn. “Imagine replacing the sequence of algebra, geometry and calculus with a sequence of finance, data and basic engineering. In the finance course, students would learn the exponential function, use formulas in spreadsheets and study the budgets of people, companies and governments. In the data course, students would gather their own data sets and learn how, in fields as diverse as sports and medicine, larger samples give better estimates of averages”.
The article concludes “It is through real-life applications that mathematics emerged in the past, has flourished for centuries and connects to our culture now”. I rephrase this by saying, it is through the real-life application of knowledge that understanding, and discovery has flourished and connects to innovation.
We all have a real choice. But time is not on our side. We must make education relevant and prepare the next generation to take their rightful place in society.