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Friday, March 19, 2010

The Excel Math Curricula

Math must be part of a critical core curriculum. It is one of the few subjects (along with reading and writing) worth "forcing" students to know. No one should enter the productive world, nor can they make good life decisions, without a deep and comfortable experience with math.

Given that, what math should be taught? Most math programs have been hopelessly tangled up in the same quagmire of precedent and capriciousness that has sunk the rest of formal schools' curricula.

Thus areas like algebra, geometry, and calculus are greatly overemphasized, while areas like discrete math, logic, programming, permutations, probabilities, and combinatorics are hugely deemphasized (the terms are complicated but the areas are not). For most students, calculus should be covered in history classes as a great invention in the same matter as pottery or the loom, if at all. Obviously for those passionate about math, and who go on to be pure or applied math or engineering majors, calculus should subsequently be required.

However, there remains a perfect tool and context for math, which many people already have. And that is a good spreadsheet such as Excel.

  • The built in math functions of a good spreadsheet have accurately captured a range of abilities necessary to use by planners, decision makers, and scientists.
  • Further, the program still requires rigorous, high level planning and programming. A spreadsheet does a lot of the rote work, but still requires and develops rock solid conceptualization and understanding of the material.
  • Students can solve the same problem in different ways, which is a plus for reactance inflicted teenagers (although bad for traditional teacher).
  • Finally, spreadsheets allow accessing information through symbols as well as more graphs. Most math is more visual anyway. (Will Wright, the brilliant creator of SimCity and The Sims, mused in a conversation we had if one should teach math without any numbers at all.)

Using a spreadsheet well, and being able to use as much of the built in equations as possible in the appropriate situation and to the right end, is a better framework than the textbooks and worksheets and obscure topic areas of yesteryear.



5 comments:

  1. Children do not need to be forced to learn reading, writing, or math. Sure way to create the epidemic of math anxiety we have here in the United States. How about, instead, enticing and supporting them in their learning?

    I loved the rest of what you had to say abut which aspects of math should be emphasized. I object to the idea of forcing learning. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that forced learning is a near-oxymoron...what is learned under coercion is so very often not what is being taught.

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  2. I currently teach a course (inside of course) that uses projects and excel spreadsheets with students that are not particularly strong in math. It is a wonderful tool, and more math teachers should use and teach excel. It is sad to think about all the students that have a strong quantitative background that don't know how to do the first thing with excel. I am enjoying the posts. Keep'em coming.

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  3. Pam,

    I really appreciate your perspective. You are right about forced learning. Take a look at the entry on leadership styles.

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  4. From the entry on leadership styles:
    <<<<
    * from the "talking-head" lecture (Level 1)
    * to environments that use sims and labs (Level 2)
    * to environments where students decide their own curricula, grading, and processes, and interact with complicated and real environments ( Level 3).>>>>

    What about environments where a "curriculum" doesn't exist at all and where there is no grading? That is real unschooling. The adults in the unschooled child's life are facilitators and supporters - more like really great "docents of the world" than teachers.

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  5. I agree. Spreadsheets should be able to be used in completely unschooling environments as a useful tool. It completely supports purely experiential learning.

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