Mathematics: The Bottleneck

geometrical_solids_sm_blkI recently read an article by Bryna Kra in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Mathemetics: 1,000 Years Old and Still Hot.” It is such a great article, I at first was not sure what more I could write. Kra begins the article on a positive note mentioning Obama’s budget request to increase STEM teachers and graduates. Then Kra gets to the crux of the issue.

But mathematicians, and the profession as a whole, are under scrutiny and attack. In 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology labeled mathematics the “bottleneck that is currently keeping many students from pursuing STEM majors” and called for teaching of college-level mathematics courses “by faculty from mathematics-intensive disciplines other than mathematics.” E.O. Wilson recently claimed that “many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate.” Paul Krugman agreed that researchers do not need much math and writes that “higher math isn’t usually essential; arithmetic is.”

Kra argues to the contrary. She notes that we do need to train individuals to be scientifically literate; however, mathematics is foundational to the training. Using such language as “toolbox” and “logical reasoning,” Kra gives a sound argument to the importance of mathematics. One of my favorite quotes from the article is

This is not to say that every scientist needs a degree in mathematics. But every scientist needs the rigorous language and logic afforded by mathematics. Equating this knowledge with the ability to do calculus is as nonsensical as equating a biologist’s ability to hunt with the ability to map a genome.

How true is this!? I think mathematics gets an unfair stereotype pinned upon it. We (mathematicians) are seen in the most basic and undesirable ways. We are often thought of as arithmeticians. However, I don’t typically see other fields portrayed like this (perhaps my bias towards mathematics gets in the way, though?). In closing the argument, Kra says

But elementary education in mathematics does not have specialists like librarians to present students with appropriate-level material. The result is that we bore the good students and lose the weaker ones, helping only some in the middle. Improving the STEM work force starts early—focusing on individual needs and teaching the language of mathematics.

This quote really goes right to the heart of the problem. Being a pure math major, I never took any education courses. However, through my work with The Center for Gifted Studies, I often heard the term “differentiated instruction.” Carol Ann Tomlinson’s website says:

The idea of differentiating instruction to accommodate the different ways that students learn involves a hefty dose of common sense, as well as sturdy support in the theory and research of education (Tomlinson & Allan, 2000). It is an approach to teaching that advocates active planning for student differences in classrooms.

Is this not a core idea conveyed in education classes? If it is, why are so many teachers not utilizing it in mathematics? A few years ago, I briefly tutored an elementary school student in Kentucky. At the beginning of the year, each student took a preassessment. This allowed the teacher to differentiate them into three different groups to assign homework at the appropriate level. The students gifted in mathematics received challenging problems that did not leave them bored and the students that struggled with mathematics received problems that were attainable to them, but still ensured their learning. Unfortunately, this is the first elementary school math course I had ever seen where differentiated instruction had been utilized.

I have seen time and time again the myths about differentiated instruction. Upon talking with several of my friends about this problem with elementary math education, I realized the myths are actually widely believed. Dr. Richard Cash has compiled a list of 10 such myths and their realities. You can check it out here.

What are your thoughts?

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1 Response to Mathematics: The Bottleneck

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