Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Wednesday Math, Vol. 58: Third thoughts on math education
When I entered high school, I took a typing class in summer school before my freshman year. It was an elective class, and my dad thought it would be a good idea. I want to say it didn't help much, as I am a hunt and peck typist all these decades later, and the damn tunes the teacher played to have us type to a rhythm are still stuck in my head, as are many tunes from other sources. There's not much helping that.
Still, the school provided a useful service in teaching a typing class back then, as it was a skill useful to many people regardless of whether they would go on to college or not. Sadly, the over-reliance on standardized tests in so many aspects of the educational means cutting back on "electives", which means any classes that aren't focused on topics that will be on the standardized tests.
Along similar lines in today's world, I would like to see high school students get training in spreadsheets. Googling "high school spreadsheets", I see I am not the first person with this good idea, but it looks like something only a few schools do, and I assume it is not a mandatory class. Reading some of the websites, there are teachers that dislike the fact that teaching spreadsheets means that you are actually teaching Excel, and they grumble about Microsoft. That's understandable, but nearly unavoidable. Others worry that some vocabulary is used in different ways in a math class than it is in a spreadsheet setting, and since the class will probably be handed to the math department by default, this could cause confusion. Again, unavoidable. The farther you get into math, the more words math appropriates and gives new and unfamiliar definitions, and likewise other fields do the same, so this confusion is par for the course.
Spreadsheets make many statistical calculations much simpler, and it's a good place to get hands on training in the idea of recursion, a mathematical concept that has been around for millenia but became much more important as computers grew more prevalent in society and more computationally powerful.
Like typing, spreadsheet use is a skill needed by those who will go on to college and those who won't. Nearly any office job can involve spreadsheet use in today's world, and high schools should give more thought about what they can offer students who do not plan to continue on to college as well as those who do plan more schooling.