Math teaching needs overhaul
My friend Tara sent me a message:
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology submitted a report on the challenge to producing more college graduates with STEM degrees. In particular, they point out mathematics as a bottleneck, and recommend (on p. 29) that “teaching and curricula [be] developed and taught by faculty from mathematics-intensive disciplines other than mathematics, including physics, engineering, and computer science.” Of course, there are physicists, engineers, and computer scientists on the Council, whereas there is no mathematician.
On some level, they do have a point. They seem to say that we (as a nation) are not doing a good job of teaching K12 mathematics. I strongly disagree with their conclusion that we should therefore take the college-level teaching of mathematics away from the experts in mathematics.
Hmm. I don’t know. I’ve been sounding a warning for a while now that math departments are way too complacent about the way they teach undergrads. I try to make people think of a math department as, to some extent, a brand, and that we should be trying to attract good majors and we should be trying to get more people psyched about math. To that end I am constantly trying to get people to care about the calculus curriculum, which is always at risk of being taken over by the physics, engineering, and economics departments, and I’ve consistently introduced “introduction to higher math” courses which explicitly teach proof techniques.
But there’s a major problem, at least in the very top research departments. Namely, the professors actually think math should be a hard and elite major, and that gives them an excuse to not care about the quality of the undergrad classes. That’s not how they say it, of course, but my experience is that’s how it works.
The other reason I think it makes sense to be a bit concerned about the brand is that if we mathematicians don’t start doing it, then someone else will start doing it for us. This President’s Council of Advisors report is exactly saying that. On the one hand it could be the kick in the ass that math departments need, but on the other hand considering how much reporting they are asking for, it could mean a tremendous amount of paperwork as well as a loss of independence of the math community.
I say mathematicians respond to this by admitting there’s a problem and coming up with a good plan that they organize and control. Otherwise I do think something else will and should be done.
Interestingly, there also seems to be a call in this report for more good math tutors. It reminds me of a commenter from yesterday who wants to start something called “Tutor for America”, which I think is an excellent idea.