Do Algebra and STEM matter?

Recently Roger C. Schank wrote posted some revolutionary ideas about education online.  Yes, these ideas promote his book, Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools.  His ideas also challenge some of the basic notions of public education.  He has claimed Algebra and STEM education as overrated.  He also called out every “core” subject in education in his blog post on 2 September.  How should we answer him when he says:

“Know what matters to you.  Learn that.  Temporarily memorize nonsense if you want to graduate but have a proper perspective on it.  Nothing you learn in high school will matter in your future life.”

First, I am offended that “what matters to you” and what you learn in high school are not closely correlated.  Yes, I understand the Honors Biology, Chemistry, and Latin I learned are of little use to me now.  Wait, I probably use them every day, but on a simple level.  What I argue is the subjects are not as important as the ability to solve problems in the subject.  Rather than teach about biospheres and the impact of chemicals in nature (I’m stretching here, I’m a Social Studies teacher), why not ask students to determine an environmental impact study for their new business, house, etc.  Rather than completing rate of flow problems in Calculus, have students determine a better drop-off plan for students at the beginning of school (something that is becoming a problem in my school).  Rather than lecturing and memorizing political party ideas, have students create factual, accurate political campaign commercials.  Problem-based learning, especially when teachers allow students to identify the problem, is MUCH more engaging.

Second, when Shank says nothing you learn in high school will matter in your future life, I cannot believe this is more wrong.  Yes, I excelled in math and physics, taking advanced placement courses in both.  As a Social Studies teacher, both these courses have little impact on my life.  However, when trying to answer “why” things happen to my three boys, these skills come in very handy.  My son asked me how ears and hearts worked this summer.  Yes, I could have looked these up on Google, but a simple understanding of how stuff works is important.  When replacing the brakes on my car, a simple knowledge of friction is important.  Yes, I could just follow the supplied directions or the YouTube videos, but a rudimentary understanding of Physics helped me ensure I was safely fixing my car.

I understand not everything I teach my students will impact their lives directly.  This week we are finishing a text-analysis of the US Preamble using historic and modern interpretations.  I do not expect all students will remember the content they learn.  I do expect they retain the skill of reading for a purpose, making an argument, and vocalizing that argument in a concise oral report.

Though many educators will quickly denounce Shank’s criticisms of public education, I also feel every statement has some amount of truth in it.  As public educators, we need to hear his criticism and consider whether we are teaching a certain way because that’s how we learned or because it actually benefits our students.  If it is not the latter, no one wins.


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