The wrong way to teach math?

A headline writer attached this misleading title to an opinion piece in the New York Times last Sunday. My response (this post) is yet another follow-up to the follow-up I posted on February 18. Apparently the issue just won’t go away! Andrew Hacker continues to push some very worthwhile goals in math teaching: quantitative literacy, numeracy, real-world applications, etc. — all in opposition to algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.

So is this a matter of what math is taught or the way math is taught? It’s all muddled together, especially in the mind of the headline-writer. (And the use of the definite article bothers me as well. “The” wrong way to teach math? Is there only one wrong way????) Hacker’s piece is clearly worth reading, and students should definitely study the topics he teaches and recommends — along with algebra, geometry, and calculus.

But it’s not so simple! Here at Weston we have a wonderful course called Applied Discrete Math Concepts, which is an excellent example of what Hacker has been teaching and recommending for several years now. It meets all his criteria, and kids who take it get a lot out of it. But I have a terrible time persuading students to take it. Yes, of course some do, but a great many reject my advice.


The answer is fairly clear. For years these students’ math courses have formed a single-minded progression of algebra-geometry-precalculus-calculus…with some statistics and probability along the way. The idea is to get to calculus as quickly as possible, and ideally take an AP Statistics course senior year as well. Apparently this will look good on one’s résumé when applying for college.

What a pity! Although Hacker is wrong in many ways — see the letter from the high-school student that I included in my February 18 post) — he’s right to push courses like Applied Discrete Math. But the race to calculus is likely to defeat him.

Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning, Weston