Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Specialized Practical vs. Universal Theoretical Math

Andrew Hacker, a political scientist has written a book called The Math Myth.  In it he argues that the emphasis on everyone learning algebra, geometry and for the elite students calculus is misguided and the curriculum should be tailored to meet individual needs.  He says "At most, 5 percent of people really use math, advanced math, in their work."

I've never been a fan of the one size fits all approach to education.  A group of experts in a room decide what is best for everyone and mandate it.  Of course this is the objection to the Common Core federally mandated curriculum we hear from the right who prefer local control so intelligent design can be taught along side the theory of evolution as a competing theory.  

Some would argue that there has to be some core skills citizens should have in order to be functioning citizens in a democracy.  They argue further that the problem solving skills acquired from studying higher mathematics are just as essential as learning facts.  Hacker argues that these skills can be acquired by tailoring curricula to individual needs and abilities for real world problems.  

When I taught general statistics for science majors (a course with many real world applications if I do say so myself) the students who had calculus struggled to grasp the concepts probability and statistics (This is partly why casinos are so profitable as I have discussed before).  They were well versed in calculus but struggled applying the formulas to real world problems.   

In this blog I have applied a wide variety of statistical methods to show how they can shed light on everyday phenomena.  There are theoretical underpinnings to these methods which involve calculus and linear algebra.  I have seldom discussed them in this blog as they would be confusing to the average reader.  Most applications in statistics can be explained and used without understanding these underpinnings.  The dilemma for educators is how far should they go in the theory to explain the practical applications which Hacker believes is more important to have functioning citizens in a society.

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