This week, a few of us got into a discussion, and involved Grant Wiggins. He calls himself a troublemaker, but I don’t remember seeing him at the last few meetings, and I’m the treasurer. In any case, for his 100th blog, he wrote this:
Algebra is a dumb course.
It survives only by unthinking habit. It cannot be justified intellectually as a subject, really. It is just a set of tools, not an intellectual discipline with larger meaning and an ongoing scholarship.
Worse, it is an insidious dumb course because everyone must take it, and many people fail it – in part, because it is so dumb.
DO NOT MISUNDERSTAND ME! I said Algebra is a dumb course. I did not say the content called algebra is not worth learning. The distinction is critical.
Algebra, as we teach it, is a death march through endless disconnected technical tools and tips, out of context. It would be like signing up for carpentry and spending an entire year being taught all the tools that have ever existed in a toolbox, and being quizzed on their names – but without ever experiencing what you can craft with such tools or how to decide which tools to use when in the face of a design problem.
I see the logic here, but, like a few of us, I get annoyed at people who want to bring up math as the strawman in need of reform in high school curriculum. Naturally, after seeing people put @grantwiggins in my mentions, I said, “Wait, does this guy actually have a plan?”
Sure enough, he responded a few minutes later, matter-of-factly, with, “I do have a plan and have written about it often. Design backward from big ideas and complex tasks.”
Of course, being the edu-heretic I am, I challenged him with, “With all due respect, we can’t UBD our way out of [reforming math education]!”
How dare I challenge Grant Wiggins, Andrew Hacker, and Nicholson Baker so deftly! What passes for “new” ideas often gets muddled in resentment from previous experiences with a certain subject without looking at the whole.
I respect Wiggins and the UBD model tremendously. With a few tweaks, I helped reconstruct the entire math department’s curriculum planning by learning how to think about what we want students to know. While still a challenge, I believe it made all of our jobs easier in the long term.
However, the UBD model is a planner. Nothing more, nothing less. We can call it a framework, a bunch of small boxes to fill out, or a separator between the have-professional-development-on-this-s and the have-nots. However, the UDB model isn’t a plan.
Unfortunately, I don’t think it gets better for high school math, either. After years of looking at the high school Common Core Math Standards, it doesn’t seem to truncate or synthesize much of anything for what high schools ought to teach besides the four major math groups (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus), at least not from New York State’s standpoint.
In other words, standards, scripted lessons, and unit plans may (or may not) help with reforming math, but we have to look at the whole ecosystem. It’s not just what we want students to know, but how they receive it, and what we have to make compulsory in order to actually measure “college and career-readiness.” Frankly, I’m not comfortable with that term, either.
The truth is, few of us actually know what we’re going to do with our lives until later in life. We should have a strong, compulsory curriculum that gives them options in case their preferred career of interest doesn’t work out for them. The more knowledge they acquire, the more options our students have. Most of us don’t have the privilege of knowing what we want right out the womb and achieving it.
That’s where the discussion about curriculum should have gone, but noooo. People had to pick on math. Come now.