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MHS Musings: How About a New Mathematics Curriculum?

One student's proposition for the school district to adopt a new online curriculum for mathematics.

Fellow MHS junior Sahil Gupta has an interesting proposal for the Millburn Board of Education.

Seeing the success of the online education tool Khan Academy (recently featured on CBS' 60 Minutes and the TED Talks), he sees the benefits of implementing the tool to mathematics education in the Millburn Public Schools, especially at MHS.

He believes that Khan Academy will rekindle student interest in math, and allow Millburn students to truly work at their own pace, which would foster maximum interest in the subject. He also sees promise in the dynamic new educational model that Khan follows.

Check out what he has to say. This is an issue that is certain to spark lots of opinions around the community. Feel free to post comments to add your voice to the discussion.

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Here's Sahil Gupta's case for Khan Academy in Millburn:

*In response to recent feedback, I’ve edited this final version to clarify my position. I intend not to criticize teachers but to promote change in our schooling system, no more, no less.

“Now kids...,” begins Mr. Barkovitz, MHS physics teacher and part-time comedian, “magnetism comes in two flavors: vanilla and choc—no, no.” The class erupts in laughter. “It comes as permanent or temporary. A permanent magnet, once magnetized, retains a level of magnetism. The second type... he acts like a permanent one within a strong magnetic field, but loses his magnetism when the field disappears. On a ‘stupid Barkovitz metaphorical level,’ a temporary magnet is a student who forgets all the material the day after the test.” Though meant to just amuse, this analogy unfortunately describes the result of math education at MHS today. Too many students are temporary magnets, memorizing formulas and steps without a sense of the big picture. They fail to develop an intuition for the material, compliments of tedious textbooks. Teachers are trying to square the circle when they give “one-size-fits-all” lectures while hoping students grasp it all. Lecture, homework, test, repeat is the cycle that governs too many classes. No matter how poorly a student scores on a test, the class must move on and his knowledge deficiency accumulates. Many students grappling with homework problems find themselves with no choice but to placate the math gods with a visit to the temple (Wolfram|Alpha). They get full marks for homework but miss the point. The problem with math education is threefold: students 1) don’t understand the material, 2) don’t retain the material, and 3) shoot, what was the third one?...

When the Organization for the Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the results of its 2009 PISA (Program for International Students Assessment) exam of 15 year old students, American math scores were dismal. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called these results a “wake-up call,” since our average math scores placed us below 30 other countries. The average of course does not represent Millburn, but the warning still carries weight.

The Internet offers a solution to improve learning. Khan Academy leads the way. Founded by its only faculty, Mr. Salman Khan, the Khan Academy (KA, khanacademy.org) is a free, online educational resource with a library of 2800+ videos. KA covers the core math subjects: arithmetic, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, precalculus (just more trig?), calculus, statistics, through linear algebra—everything from 1+1 = 2 to sin^2(x)+cos^2(x) = 1 to e^(iπ)+1 = 0.

Using KA, students can pause and replay videos at home to learn a lesson on their own time. With nothing more than a track pad pen on a black background, Khan gives lessons in his characteristic concise and conversational style, using simple, unintrusive software (contrast with Microsoft Paint). He holds three degrees from MIT: a BS in math and a BS and MS in electrical engineering and computer science, plus an MBA from Harvard Business School. Khan is an articulate polymath, and now teacher, who has delivered more than 123 million lessons. He says he tries to “deliver things the way I wish things were delivered to me.”

In any given month, KA reaches about 1,000,000 students (roughly the size of my PE class). In the KA model, students won’t get a lecture in school because they’ve already viewed digital lectures at home. Now class time is free for more valuable instruction: 1-on-1 tutoring. This reversal of teaching methods has students viewing KA lectures for homework and solving problems in class. The math department of MHS, to save its students, teachers, and the beauty of math, must make the flip.

In his TED Talk, Khan draws a connection between the current state of American math education and learning to ride a bicycle: “I give you a lecture [on bicycling] ahead of time, and I give you that bicycle for two weeks. And then I come back after two weeks, and I say, ‘Well, let’s see. You’re having trouble taking left turns. You can’t quite stop. You’re an 80 percent bicyclist.’ So [I say], ‘Here’s a unicycle.’” It seems ridiculous, but it is reality. Our math system from elementary to high school has students on an assembly line with faulty processes in between. We can do better.

Khan Academy solves this problem and has proven its model works. In Los Altos, CA, where the local school district decided to implement KA at the 5th and 7th grade level, teachers reported staggering growth in student performance and test data confirmed it. Also Khan is collaborating with other Bay Area school districts such as San Jose and Oakland. Venture capitalist John Doerr, Bill Gates, and Google all recognize its revolutionary capability and have invested millions in the organization. KA is more than a mere supplement.

But lectures, whether online or in school, are only a part of a complete education. We learn in a social context. Then to foster learning we must emphasize active problem-solving. There is value to being in a classroom, an interactive classroom, and the flip that Khan advocates realizes this. Math becomes social when students can solve problems together. The common misconception is that teachers are now irrelevant. The opposite is true. If teaching effectiveness is measured not by student-to-teacher ratios but by Khan’s “student-to-valuable-human-time-with-teacher ratio,” teachers will now have more responsibility, spending 100 percent of their time working with students. By bringing technology into education, we’re “humanizing the classroom,” in Khan’s words.

Students still have room for follow-up questions and feedback but now get to interact with other students. Another strength of KA is that it is data-driven. When students begin watching videos and completing practice quizzes on the website, they are producing data instantly accessible to teachers. Logged in as “coaches,” teachers get a summary of class and individual performance that helps them determine where kids show intellectual vigor or weakness.

Of course focusing on underachieving students, increasing standards for teachers, firing incompetent ones, hiring skilled ones, and rewarding successful ones will improve education. Even Millburn High School has some teachers who feel pressured to follow the system and thus lose their effectiveness.  Many teachers at Millburn avoid this pitfall and lead outstanding classes, but the problem is not everyone does. Some say that just raising school funding would solve the problem. But we’ve tried. Exhibit A: Our government spends nearly the most of all OECD countries on education per student and has achieved precisely nothing. There is no correlation between funding and achievement. New York math teacher Dr. Paul Lockhart acerbically points out in his A Mathematician’s Lament “Operate all you want, doctors: your patient is already dead.” The change must occur at a fundamental level.

MHS must open its eyes to Khan Academy and make the flip. Teachers unions and Staples need not worry. We more than ever need our teachers and overpriced notebooks. If there’s one thing education bureaucracies don’t like being taught, it’s a lesson—but KA will bring dynamism to this sclerotic state system. So what was that elusive third problem with math education today? Now I remember: students don’t enjoy the material. When we implement Khan Academy, students will, above all, renew their love for math. Embrace, then, the Academic Spring.

Alan Cook March 21, 2012 at 04:43 PM
National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids. Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out. The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting. Project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room. Alan Cook info@thenumberyard.com www.thenumberyard.com

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