Calc or Stats?
Last week during a PRISM Meeting (PRISM stands for Programming, Robotics, Imagination, Science & Math) on campus, math teacher Jonathan Weis asked us to reconsider the primacy of Calculus in our math curriculum. Students traditionally take Geometry, Algebra 2, pre-calculus and then calculus or statistics before graduation. Some students go beyond these courses to study number theory or differential calculus, while others take the fastest route away from math after Algebra 2. Calculus has a certain nerdy glamour attached to it in our culture, and most people, I would argue, would say that choosing stats over calc was the easier route to take. But what if taking stats actually better prepared our students for the thinking, research, and work they will be doing in their careers and in life?
I love questions like Mr. Weis’s that challenge the accepted wisdom and force us to look carefully at what we are teaching and why we are teaching what we do. What might be the argument for replacing calculus with statistics at or near the top of our math curriculum? New York Times columnist Stephen Strogatz, in his book, The Joy of X writes that, “[s]tatistics has suddenly become cool and trendy. Thanks to the emergence of the Internet, e-commerce, social networks, the Human Genome Project, and the digital culture in general, the world is now teeming with data.” That data is seemingly worthless unless we train a new generation of students in how to interpret information and make use of it. What questions do we need to ask of the data to make the most of things like clinical trials, political polling, product or institutional marketing, and forensics?
At Dublin we like to think intentionally about adolescent development and the best timing for introducing ideas, courses, and concepts. We are working with young people at the very moment that their brains are expanding and developing the capacity to learn new skills, take in copious information, and deal with previously indecipherable abstractions. James Manyika and Michael Chui, in their article MBA’s can’t afford to end their math with calculus, argue that, “[s]ome students hit a wall when they come up against calculus, finding it too abstract. Teachers can engage students in a tangible way with statistics, challenging them with real—world exercises like finding errors in reported studies, designing experiments to test hypotheses in the real world, or analyzing real data from the Web to determine what factors drive online behavior. Generating this kind of excitement earlier in a student’s high school years might even build a stronger lifelong affinity for mathematics.”
Science Department Chair Katri Jackson questioned whether 9th and 10th grade science courses could incorporate more statistics in them to make our courses more relevant to what scientists are doing today. These types of discussions are the very reason we are bringing our math, science and technology teachers together to discuss ideas, question practices, and develop curriculum.
The challenge lies in understanding how courses like calculus operate on us. They may not have as many practical applications in the age of the computer, after all even my phone can provide answers to questions about the rate of change. Learning about statistics is clearly practical and marketable in our new economy, but does it develop our thinking skills in the way that calculus allegedly does? Should calculus stay where it is and should we simply add more statistics to other classes, like biology and history? I look forward to discussing these and other questions at or next PRISM meeting!
Manyika, James and Chui, Michael. MBA’s can’t afford to end their math education with calculus, McKinsey Global Institute, 12 March 2013. <mckinsey.com/insights/mgi/in_the_news/mbas_cant_afford_to_end>
Strogatz, Steven. The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.