Education Never Stops
Twenty years ago I was halfway through my first year of teaching working as a mathematics teacher at a middle school in San Jose, CA and I recall the stir created by the new mandate that all eighth grade students were expected to take Algebra as their mathematics class. Much has changed over the course of the intervening twenty years, but the curriculum of middle school mathematics show little real change other than a push to do it faster. Driven by the goal of students to move as fast as possible towards calculus most middle schools defer to high schools in their decisions about mathematics curriculum without much thought given to the appropriateness of that goal. I agree with former president of NCTM J. Michael Shaughnessy's comments on calculus in his 2012 article, "Some Thoughts on Calculus and a Thank You!" where he says, "a high school calculus course should not be the be-all and end-all of mathematics, nor should it be the only transition path form high school to college mathematics." The push of the high school curriculum downward continues today with many schools now putting seventh grade students in Algebra thereby enabling them to take Geometry in the eighth grade. It is not that I do not think middle school students are capable of learning the material in these classes, but I do question if they should do so in middle school. Former president of NCTN Linda M. Gojak in here 2013 article, "Algebra: Not 'If' but 'When'" rightly stated, "we do more harm than good by placing students in a formal algebra course before they are ready" and with all the other alternatives appropriate for middle school I believe it is time for a change.
Rather than push students into classes that can easily wait until high school, why not take advantage of the technological changes of the past twenty years to expand STEM education in middle school? Instead of teaching the high school curriculum of 1950 in middle school, how about teaching computer programming, robotics, statistics, probability, and discrete mathematics? Let the focus no longer be on getting to calculus as fast as possible, but let it become a focus on creating a solid foundation in logical thinking that serves all students well. These topics fit very well the developmental stage of middle school minds and open many possibilities for future learning. The technological changes to these subjects over the past twenty years make them accessible to middle school students so why not take advantage of the changes? I believe such a change in curriculum would greatly improve student attitudes and success in mathematics in middle school and beyond. When students wait until high school to take high school math, everyone benefits.
Recently I read an article in the Washington Post posted titled "Why students using laptops learn less in class even when they really are taking notes" that at first glance makes a good case for not using computers in a classroom. It cites a study by P. A Mueller and D. M. Oppenheimer showing students who take lecture notes with a laptop do not learn as well as students who take lecture notes by hand. Clearly in a classroom where the typical lesson consists of a traditional lecture computers are not just an expensive, wasteful replacement for pen and paper rather they are an expensive, wasteful hindrance to learning! The glaring flaw in applying the study to the value of laptops in the classroom is the only learning studied was that done by way of a lecture. Although delivery of lessons by way of a lecture is still quite common it is not considered the optimum way for students to learn by any educator I have encountered in the past twenty years. The value of laptops in classrooms is in doing activities not otherwise possible rather than the same old lectures with a new, expensive, less effective note-taking tool. I would be interested in the results of the same study with a simple alteration to the methodology. Before the lecture begins the students who take notes by hand are given a paper copy of a transcript of the lecture and the students who take note on the laptop are given personal copy of a transcript of the lecture in the form of a Google document. I tend to think even this simple change would alter the results of the study, but what if a video recording of the lecture was added? What about interrupting the lecture with ten minutes of personal research on the topic being presented? Ten minutes is likely just enough time for the students using pen and paper to walk into the library, wave at the librarian, and go back to the classroom. A computer is not the best tool for taking notes anymore than taking notes is the best way to learn.
1-2 of 2