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It's the Application, Stupid

Throughout my career I have worked a lot with data. And the truth is, I enjoy using numbers as (one) way to tell a story; whether it’s about how our schools and communities are changing from a demographic perspective, or collating and analyzing quantifiable and qualifiable survey results, or reviewing numerous indicators of student and school success.

And because people see me working with data, they also often presume that I am good at math. And I suppose, in my own way, that I am. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact there was a time in my life, many years ago, that public education told me that I wasn’t good at math at all. I struggled for years with high school math because I often couldn’t make the connection between what was being taught with practical applications. If I don’t understand the purpose, I find it very difficult to connect with the theory. That’s the way I am. It’s the way that I learn.

So, after struggling for years with high school math, you can imagine my surprise and satisfaction to find in college and university that I wasn’t so bad at math after all. You see, in college and university I was able to apply mathematical concepts to real life situations. The context of mathematical theory was aligned with practical applications. And behold, I suddenly found myself excelling in math courses that I wasn’t even allowed to take when I was in high school.

Now, I can accept that the world was a different place when I was in high school. Looking back, the 1970’s high school was still a place where academic sorting and sifting was a somewhat necessary and acceptable practice. After all, the purpose of math wasn’t so much about practical application as it was about helping to separate the academically inclined from the academically challenged. Compared to today, there were lots of jobs that only required a high school diploma and a comparative few that required creative thinking and problem solving skills. And of course in the 1970’s we didn’t have any of the tools, beyond textbooks and direct access to classroom teacher knowledge, that students can use today to personalize their learning experience.

But now we have a need for educational systems that produce greater numbers of graduates with critical thinking skills that will meet the social, environmental and economic needs of our rapidly changing world. So, if we believe in “the why” for educational system reform, we also have to recognize that this is deeper than simply bringing more technology into the classroom.

Even the most academically gifted students will acknowledge that they learn best when they can understand and link concept with application. Not to mention the fact that it’s more fun. And yes, knowledge of the basics is required first because, after all, you can’t read to learn until you learn to read. But we also have to ask ourselves, in this day and age, is there any reason why we can’t make learning a thoroughly engaging experience? Certainly there are pockets of excellence happening in our schools. But think of the opportunities available to empower our students, beyond the memorization of facts and formulas, to actually apply mathematical and other important and interesting concepts.

I was interested to read a recent column by Andrew Hacker, emeritus professor of political science at Queen’s College, City University of New York, who wonders why our students are even expected to take some of the traditional classes in advanced mathematics. Indeed, we often seem so determined to hold on to the past that we can hardly bear, despite evidence to the contrary, to think the unthinkable; “do our students even need algebra?”

Several weeks ago I found myself pondering over an excel function for a mathematical formula necessary for a spreadsheet that I was working on. I smiled as my eyes quickly scanned over the rows of textbooks I have accumulated over the years to realize that I could simply Google my inquiry. Within 30 seconds I was watching an easy to understand youtube video on the topic. I could start, stop, pause and repeat at my own pace. If I didn’t like that particular presenter or presentation style, I had many others to choose from.

Within 5 minutes I had the excel formula I needed and entered into my spreadsheet - with a newly refined understanding of its larger function, to boot. I was empowered, as a learner, to choose when I needed to learn the concept, to learn it at my own pace and to apply it to a function of my choice. I was the creator. It was fun. But it wasn’t rocket science. It was just mathematics.

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