Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why students don't actually learning anything from school & How we should teach math

Students are forced to go on to their next class if they "pass" it with a C or better. However, this means that they can go on while only knowing 70% of the prerequisite material. When you think about it, if you only need to know 70% of, for example, Pre-algebra, in order to succeed in Algebra 1, and then you only need to know 70% of Algebra 1 to succeed in Algebra 2, and then you only need to know 70% of Algebra 2 to succeed in Pre-calculus, by the time you get to Calculus, you will know only a small percentage (out of knowing 100%) of the prerequisite material. This policy makes no sense, if you think school (the way it's set up currently) is intended to actually teach people. 

It's in vogue nowadays to talk about how to encourage kids to pursue math in school. One simple way to achieve that would be to do one of two things:
  1. Require students to retake the class they're currently taking until they get at least a 95%, or another equivalent and/or relavent grade 
  2. Even better, flip the classroom, thus giving students all the time they need to learn the material
What people usually mean when they say they want to encourage kids to pursue math is that they want to spend money (in public schools, they're spending my money and yours) on after-school programs or teachers. However, the reason kids aren't interested in math is because they don't understand it, and that comes from two things:
  1. They don't understand it because they were never given enough time to actually comprehend what they're learning, what it means, and why it is important to learn it.
  2. They were made to think that the basics and mechanical calculations are terribly important, when in reality they aren't. That's what computers are for. Conrad Wolfram has an excellent TED talk about this.

Wolfram brings up a really important point. Instead of testing students on calculations by giving them a written test, we should have them write a program that does the calculation. For example, if they were learning how to factor quadratic equations, they would show their understanding by writing a program that factored an inputted quadratic. This way, they would have to take into account any input possible rather than just answering the questions their teacher happened to choose. 

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