Sunday, April 17, 2011

What If Math Were an Elective?

Dan Meyer made a very simple statement on Twitter that really had me thinking. His statement was:
If I ask myself this question before bed, I don't sleep: "What if math were an elective?"
 It turns out I was unable to sleep as well. The question had my mind going in many directions. The first of which was how would this change the teaching of math? My first reaction is that there would be a lot fewer students taking math. Currently in Ontario students are required to take 3 math courses. Many of them don't like math and won't take a minute more than they need to. My thinking was that the teaching would need to change to engage more students. We would have to show them how useful and exciting math can be. Get them to crave more. How do we do this? By providing them with engaging problems that they can relate to, which is easier said than done. It's a lot of work but it's something to work towards.

The other questions I had were: how would this affect students? Would they have enough basic mathematical knowledge to get through life? What effect, if any, would it have on their problem solving skills? How would this affect society as a whole? How do I as a math teacher ensure that I'm making a difference?

Unfortunately, I have a lot of questions and very few answers. I'm not discouraged by this since it's questions like these that allow us to continually improve. Perhaps we should all teach our courses as though they were electives. My guess is that students would get more out of them. I think I've just set a new goal for myself: teach as though my classes are electives.

What questions do you have? Do you have any suggestions for making math more meaningful?


  1. i think more kids would fall in love with math if it weren't compulsory.

    just the fact that 70% of time together wouldn't be spent on classroom management, but rather on interesting problems.

    for the teachers as well - if what they taught wasn't compulsory... but rather changing daily per interest.

    imagine changing who's together in a room by some platform of student choice.

  2. I'm not sure compulsory matters (although it would be interesting if choice was a part of the decision making) as much as student empowerment, relevance, and intensity. I also think it matters greatly that math teachers deeply understand the content, along with pedagogy. Not sure that is always the case.

  3. If teaching math as an elective means teaching it like Music or Art, I think we might have a new generation of mathematical virtuosos on our hands. If it means teaching math sequentially (like most of us do now), but letting kids opt out, I think we'd have a lot of empty math classes.

    Have you read Lockhart's Lament? I think even with mandatory attendance we can work a little art class into our math classes ;)

  4. You'd certainly be able to dig much deeper if students wanted, rather than had to, be there. This depth would require teachers to have a good understanding of the content so that students could offer some input on the direction of the course.

    Thanks for the link Riley. I'll check it out. Your point about teaching math differently is a good one.

  5. I think that it sounds like a fresh approach that many teachers and students would find liberating. Funny how we can offer a variety of courses in English, Social Studies, and science, but not math. At least I have not worked in a school that offered "elective" math courses. I think that the idea has potential.

  6. I've always thought about reforming math education not making it optional. I recently made a blog post with some ideas about how to do just that. There I have a list of problems that I think would be highly engaging for high school students:

  7. I hope that if math were an elective, we would still be teaching math in the way that the kids who like it now...the math geeks...would still like it. Sometimes we go so far out of our way to make math friendly that we take all of the math out of it (granted, this happens more in elementary/middle than in high school).

    One of the many education tempests-in-a-teapot right now is a study that says students who take algebra 2 are more likely to be successful in college, and so some states are thinking of requiring algebra 2 for all students. But right now algebra 2 is often the first non-required math class in high school, so the data could also be interpreted as saying that students who take a math class that's not required are more likely to be successful in college, and if that's the case, then requiring algebra 2 would just push the problem up by a course. Taking required math courses is good, but taking a math class that's not required is better. I'm all for making math make more sense (I love your Angry Parabolas post!), but if you don't then go on to teach the algebraic info about parabolas, then it's not real math anymore.