Rethinking the traditional MATH syllabus

I don’t know about you, but whenever I read any piece about why traditional lecture format classes are outdated, inefficient, inappropriate, etc., I picture myself in a large lecture hall, listening to a professor way down at the front of class writing equations after equation on the board. In essence, when I think bad lecture format, I automatically think math.


Why is that, I wondered? I’m sure I am not alone in thinking that math is among the least exciting subjects out there. But is this line of thinking due to the fact that math really is boring? How can math itself be boring when it can be applied to any other subject, even the cooler ones? Take a favorite subject like sports, math plays a huge part in sports, how about travel…..well space travel is an obvious one, but even plane, train, automobile travel wouldn’t be possible without math. What about music? Surely math can’t play a role there. Yep it does. Math is behind everything we do….so surely it can’t be boring.


The boring aspect that we associate with math must come from how we have learned about this fascinating subject. Anything would be boring if you had to sit down and listen to someone talk about it for an hour, all the while using terminology you don’t understand and making no mention of how or when you will ever actually use it. And yet, this is exactly how math is taught. I know that the lecture formats in some schools are changing to include problem based learning, peer teaching, and other more engaging techniques, but I think one huge aspect of the math curriculum is not being addressed. Shouldn’t we be rethinking the WHAT as well as HOW we are teaching?

I found an OpEd by Andrew Hacker, a poli sci prof at Queens College of CUNY, entitled Is Algebra Necessary? Woah! What? Algebra necessary? Is breathing necessary? I could see why this piece was met with immediate heavy criticism. But I think Prof Hacker brings to light an important issue that is nicely summarized in this reply by Forbes contributor Mike McClenathan and also by Glen Whitney, founder of the Museum of Mathematics (MoMath). That is: WHAT we are teaching about MATH needs to be revamped just as much as HOW we are teaching it. Now I am no math whiz, I have no answers to how the traditional math curriculum should be changed to reflect our modern day world but I do think it is an issue that deserves some serious thought.