The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Teaching for Life

on March 10, 2016

One thing I have been advocating for a long time is learning for real life. In my opinion too much of what is taught in schools from kindergarten through college has little or no use in the world where we live full-time and have continuing needs to operate successfully.  Today’s post refers to two articles I have read recently.  The first one, “States Move to Issue High School Diplomas Retroactively” appeared in Education Week on January 26th, and the other, “The Wrong Way to Teach Math” was published in the New York Times on February 28th.

Apparently, the popular saying “Use it or lose it” has been around all over the world for centuries.  We know, and our ancestors knew, that knowledge and work skills not used regularly soon slip away from our grasp and are difficult to re-capture.  That’s why long before written language was available to the masses, it was common for ordinary people to chant or sing pieces that represented the basic principles and beliefs of their culture.

Although educators today accept the truth of the “Use it” saying as much as tennis players and linguists do, we have failed to honor it in our schools.  The grand assumption among educational policy makers is that a good education is the accumulation of a vast store of information and skills in order to cover all the possibilities of future lives. That’s why all students are required to study math and American history well into high school and most of them must also study a foreign language. The sad, but inevitable, result is that few of us remember much that was taught later on in our lives unless we need to use it regularly.

In an article I read recently the author, Mathew Andrew Hacker, argues that high school and college math courses for the majority of students should be more practical, teaching the kind of math we all need in our everyday lives. He says, “Ours has become a quantitative century, and we must master its language.  Decimals and ratios are now as crucial as nouns and verbs.”  To make his point he describes the elitism of the math courses he has seen being taught in high schools and community colleges today; they are still focusing on the math used only by mathematicians, architects, and scientists.

Hacker goes on to describe how he teaches math at Queens College in New York, which he recommends for the mass of students not aiming for technical careers.  When he gives a few examples of the problems he presents to his students, even I was able to solve them and appreciate their usefulness for ordinary citizens in their everyday lives. He ends his article by explaining why our schools should be teaching differently because traditional mathematics does not line up with real world needs.  For example, the “base 10” emphasized in all areas of mathematics does not fit with the way we measure time in seconds, minutes, hours and weeks, and thus makes it very difficult for us to figure out percentages of time, a common need in our lives.

I agree with Hacker completely. If mathematics were taught as an every-day skill through K-12–and in college for those not majoring in it–I believe that almost everyone would remember and use it effectively in their adult lives. And that belief drives me further to think about the content of other classes in the regular education sequence that does not stay with us very long or serve us well.  Those classes that stand out in my mind are American history and Science. I did well in both as a student but forgot almost everything soon afterward. I can’t remember the names or accomplishments of most of the American presidents before my time, what the French and Indian War was all about, or which elements the symbols in the Periodic Table stand for.  Can you?  Fortunately, I can still do everyday math–much of it in my head–but I can no longer solve any algebra or geometry problems in the ways I was taught. If such skills and knowledge are so quickly lost by most of us, is it not time to re-think and re-construct the K-12 curriculum? Make it real; make it relevant; make it memorable.





One response to “Teaching for Life

  1. Don Bellairs says:

    This essay is an argument in support of the kind of mathematical manipulation that is promoted by CCSS assessments that appeared in this blog a few weeks back.


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