Grant Wiggins and How I View Math Curriculum

Jose VilsonResources4 Comments

Grant Wiggins, What issss UBD?

Grant Wiggins, What issss UBD?

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?”

Oh boy.

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.

Mr. Vilson

Comments 4

  1. Pingback: Grant Wiggins and How I View Math Curriculum - ...

  2. Hi Jose,

    Agreed that math does catch a lot of flack as “irrelevant” when other disciplines show similarly incoherent sets of standards and weirdly ritualized cult behaviors.

    But, “The more knowledge, the more options” doesn’t answer the question. The question should be, “What do students need to know and to do in order to lead good lives while contributing to the common good?” Answering “lots” doesn’t help and in fact makes things worse. If someone sets out on a sailboat voyage from Brooklyn to Ireland and asks you for help in figuring out the most important stuff to bring “everything” won’t just not help, it will sink the boat.

    Can you come back to this topic? Since you’re the treasurer of the trouble-maker club you’re not allowed to get all defensive of your particular discipline – either argue for the random tool box or tell us about a way of teaching the most crucial tools and thinking embedded in meaningful projects. Please and thank you.

  3. I enjoyed reading this, and I want to respectfully suggest that the question left by andy, above, involves a false analogy. Human beings do not have a limited amount of learning they can contain; on the contrary, evidence suggests that the more you know, the easier it is to learn new things. It’s as if the more you put into the ship, the bigger and more buoyant it becomes. So I agree with Mr. Vilson that more is better, as a general principle.

    That said, there is certainly a limited amount of time in the day and in a lifetime for formal education, so schools do need to set out priorities for what is most important to learn. What belongs in the compulsory curriculum, and what should be optional? In high school math, a course in statistics is usually optional, but should it be? Complicating matters is the rate at which students proceed through the curriculum — some students are very capable of learning math, but would benefit from going at a slower pace. Should calculus be compulsory for high school, or might it be acceptable for some students to take calculus in college?

    1. A little late to this party, but….
      Now when my students ask “when am I ever going to need this?”, my response is “I don’t know, but when you do, you’ll know how.”

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