The AMATYC 2014 conference is almost over. Many conversations and sessions have dealt with changing the curriculum in basic ways, whether shifting to a New Life model or Dana Center or Carnegie … in part, whole, or modified. Some of us get so enthusiastic about this change that we don’t get slowed down by worries or concerns about the amount of hard work this will take; for us, it’s like nothing will stop us from reaching our goal.
Most of us, however, are facing constraints. We are intimidated by the work involved — the hard work of developing an idea, getting consensus or approval in the department, and building institutional support, all of which is required before we get to develop the teaching in the new courses. Perhaps, we think, it would be best to take a small step like replacing one chapter in the current course with a new one, and see how the ideas work out at other institutions.
Take the biggest step you think you can. In fact, take a step a little bigger than you think is realistic.
I could justify these statements by citing policy initiatives that are coming, by showing data on how ‘bad’ things are now, or by invoking the Common Core mythology. Today, I want to take a different approach to the rationale for why it is important to make changes a little bigger than you think is realistic.
Call it personal, or perhaps religious. My world view, informed by my beliefs, goes something like this:
- Do no harm to others
- Place the needs of others ahead of (some) of your own needs
For a large portion of students placing below calculus, we are doing harm to them. They come to us with dreams and aspirations, and we place steps in front of them that are frequently and artificially difficult. Yes, we bear some responsibility for students giving up on their dreams. We have been doing significant harm, even though our work is driven by a desire to help. We must stop doing harm to such a degree.
We should be placing the needs of students above our own needs. We will have jobs, though different, even if we eliminate half of our developmental courses; sure, it’s not comfortable … it can even be threatening. However, continuing what we have been doing is not putting students’ needs first. Does any student need the 100 learning outcomes of my college’s developmental mathematics courses? Absolutely not. Those 100 outcomes are there because we there might be a need sometime for somebody to use them in some situation; much of this ‘need’ is driven by assessments within mathematics courses.
Herb Gross, founding president of AMATYC, gave a popular keynote speech here at the conference. At one point, Herb said that we should re-phrase the golden rule; instead of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” it should be “Do unto others as they would do unto themselves.” I appreciate the intent with this re-phrasing, but it totally misses the faith justification for the original … we are called to see ourselves as the other person; the ‘do unto you’ refers to what they could do to you or for you if your roles were reversed.
So, envision yourself starting at college, and your initial mathematics course is not very ‘advanced’. Perhaps you are the person who had AP Calculus in high school who is told that you now must take two courses before taking college calculus. Perhaps you are the person who passed two algebra courses with weak grades who now finds herself sitting in a class reviewing grade school arithmetic with 25 other students of color. Perhaps you are the person who did not do well before, and really needs help building a mathematical base … and you find yourself in a math course which deals strictly with procedures, with some drive-by attention to concepts, and no real applications in sight.
The issues I am talking about are definitely not just in ‘developmental’ or remedial courses. At all levels, we tend to have a mismatch between student needs and what we provide. The harm is done in pre-algebra and pre-calculus, in algebra and calculus, and even in statistics.
I have never met a math teacher at any level who wanted to do harm to students. Almost all of us have a sincere desire to help students, to provide the best mathematics possible. Change can involve a risk to do harm; the profession has enough knowledge about mathematical needs and learning to avoid much of the risk.
Do no harm, as much as possible. We must take the biggest step possible … and a little more … to reduce the harm we do. We should take advantage of the external forces, and create the types of change we think are best — to put our students’ needs first.
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