Mathematics challenges most of our adult population, as well as K-16 students, primarily due to the way it has been defined as a curriculum, and its well-intentioned, but very ineffective de-contextualized, oversimplified, and too teacher-centric instructional methods; this is not solely to promote a pure discovery approach either. What is needed, as with most things in life, is a situation dependent, balanced approach where direct instruction and discovery learning are intertwined in a complementary fashion. Use of these two pedagogies need not be considered mutually exclusive. Yet, for many it is akin to a holy war.
Unfortunately, over the past several decades, we have succeeded in convincing hundreds of millions of people that they are “not good at math,” when in fact, what is called math in most secondary schools is not even close to mathematics in all its splendid glory. More heinously, in the spirit of inclusiveness, equity, and egalitarianism, we require all students to learn mathematics at levels of complexity and abstractness, which in all reality, are rarely used in everyday life for the majority of the population. While there are exceptions, even these uses are often limited in their application aside from the extremely small percentage of the population that applies mathematics beyond arithmetic and the simplest of algebra concepts as a routine part of their day-to-day job. I assert that these professionals are far less than ten percent of our nation’s work force, and perhaps even less than one-percent of it.
Aside from intensive use while pursuing my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and somewhat regular use as design engineer, any regular use of mathematics beyond arithmetic and simple algebra was minimal in my career as a systems engineer, program manager, product manager, and marketeer. Nonetheless, I enjoyed a lengthy career in high-tech. Far too many citizens are denied the similar ability to get higher paying jobs within which attitude, perseverance, interpersonal skills, and manageability are far more important traits than mathematical proficiency.
Yet, for over a century, we have perpetuated the myth that secondary school content must be determined by subject matter-specific college professors; otherwise, they proclaim, we will graduate students ill-prepared for college or a career. If I am not mistaken, it seems that in spite of intensive reform efforts in mathematics curricula and pedagogy over the past five decades, which kicked into high gear with the launch of Sputnik, we have not attained the mathematical prowess envisioned by our professors of mathematics. And yet, our country manages to preserve its dominance throughout the world in many ways. True, we may be losing some share to other rising economies, and their scientists and engineers, however, it is not the imminent doom and gloom story promulgated by education reformers. This stranglehold by college professors of mathematics on setting the mathematics curriculum, and often the pedagogy, à la the math wars, baffles me.
At the same time, I completely understand, and agree that those students who intend to be the next generation of mathematicians, engineers, scientists, philosophers, and what not must have the opportunity to learn all that they are interested in, and capable of, learning at the highest levels without regard to socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, or any other protected status. It seems that the implementation of this model perplexes the most capable of social scientists, as we are unable to take anything other than a one-size shoe, undergarments, pants, shirt, and hat approach to public education. In this day and age, surely we can realize a better match between student interests as well as abilities and knowledge offerings. Should a classical education, which was designed to make sure a child of the renaissance, with all of his or her commensurate resources, could ascend to the throne be required of all citizenry before they are considered capable, reliable, and competent? I think not.