Field of Science

Stop teaching calculus in high school

Math education needs a reboot. Kids today are growing up into a world awash in data, and they need new skills to make sense of it all. 

The list of high school math courses in the U.S. hasn’t changed for decades. My daughters are taking the same courses I took long ago: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. These are all fine subjects, but they don’t serve the needs of the 21st century. 

What math courses do young people really need? Two subjects are head-smackingly obvious: computer science and statistics. Most high schools don’t offer either one. In the few schools that do, they are usually electives that only a few students take. And besides, the math curriculum is already so full that some educators have argued for scaling back. Some have even argued for getting rid of algebra, as Andrew Hacker argued in the NY Times not long ago.

So here's a simple fix: get rid of high school calculus to make way for computer programming and statistics.

Computers are an absolute mystery to most non-geeks, but it doesn’t have to be that way. A basic computer programming class requires little more than a familiarity with algebra. With computers controlling so much of their lives, from their phones to their cars to the online existence, we ought to teach our kids what’s going on under the hood. And programming will teach them a form of logical reasoning that is missing from the standard math curriculum.

With data science emerging as one of the hottest new scientific areas, a basic understanding of statistics will provide the foundation for a wide range of 21st century career paths. Not to mention that a grasp of statistics is essential for navigating the often-dubious claims of health benefits offered by various "alternative" medicine providers. 

(While we're at it, we should require more statistics in the pre-med curriculum. Doctors are faced with new medical science every day, and statistical evidence is the most common form of proof that a new treatment is effective. With so much bad science out there (just browse through my archive for many examples), doctors need better statistical knowledge to separate the wheat from the chaff.) 

Convincing schools to give up calculus won’t be easy. I imagine that most math educators will scream in protest at the mere suggestion, in fact. In their never-ending competition to look good on a blizzard of standardized tests, schools push students to accelerate in math starting in elementary school, and they offer calculus as early as the tenth grade. This doesn’t serve students well: the vast majority will never use calculus again. And those who do need it - future engineers, physicists, and the like - can take it in college. 

Colleges need to adjust their standards too. They can start by announcing that high school programming and statistics courses will be just as important as calculus in admissions decisions. If just a few top universities would take the lead, our high schools would sit up and take notice.

We can leave calculus for college. Colleges teach calculus well, and 18-year-old freshmen are ready for it. Every major university in the country has multiple freshman calculus courses, and they usually have separate courses designed for science-bound and humanities students. Many students who take high school calculus have to re-take it in college anyway, because the high school courses don’t cover quite the same material. 


Let’s get rid of high school calculus and start teaching young students the math skills they really need.

5 comments:

  1. The problem is not to stop the teaching of calculus, but finding space to add others. In Italy, for example, we have a course dedicated to programming (one or two hours per week), while the time for statistics and probability is limitated by the time dedicated to the rest of the program. A good help is arrived from the mathematical competitions and the self-assessment tests that are often questions of applied mathematics.

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    1. I should emphasize that my opinion here refers to the US curriculum. I don't know any details about the high school math curriculum in Italy - or most other countries. But in the U.S. it is more or less the same as it's been since the 1950's.

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  2. No. High school math is about fundamentals. Computer science is a good skill to have, but it's at once too specific and too broad. Teach logic in geometry class and you set a foundation for those students who wish to learn coding. Computer use generally should be integrated in all classes where appropriate. Algebra and trig can be taught concurrently in the same course. Statistics should be taught; it's a valuable skill for information consumers (everyone). Calculus is too important to postpone. My high school calculus class changed my entire perception of knowledge. It may sound dramatic, but calculus taught me to see things in continuum rather than rigid categories.

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  3. ideally the computer does the math and statistics for you.
    So teach them what software to use and how to do it
    and how to interpret it

    gsgs

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  4. High school students should be taught probability, not statistics, Probability is creative thinking. As a bonus, students will better understand how to work with fractions and percentages when taught probability.

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