Without a shared understanding of these basic concepts, communication about public policy breaks down.
Dialogue becomes diatribe, conversation degrades into conflict, facts are overwhelmed by factionalism. And the always fragile fabric of democracy starts to fray
The Post-Pandemic Curriculum Project arose from:
- 11 years representing 70,000 constituents as a Trustee of the Toronto District School Board (250,000 students in 550 schools)
- a decade as a Vice-President of the Ontario Public School Boards Association
- volunteering as a tutor in high school maths and sciences at non-profit Pathways to Education
- participating in monthly MathEd Forums at University of Toronto’s Fields Institute
- a career in owning, operating, and consulting to businesses
- a father of two, now grown, sons, one working at an NGO, the other immersed in elementary particle astrophysics.
Most of the students with whom I work at Pathways to Education are completely indifferent to quadratic equations, trigonometry, the shapes of organelles, calculating the trajectory of a cannonball, and the naming conventions of organic molecules. Few of them care about anything other than getting the right answer on their assignment or test.
They correctly understand that their future success rests more on good marks than on remembering detailed facts and skills that they would never use after the course ends. Most soon forget everything they “learned” but sadly many carry forward a lingering distaste for one or more subjects. Their indifference and distaste are most pronounced in the maths and hard sciences. Sadly, some of my fellow tutors, including some destined for a career in education, share that attitude.
In contrast, the MathEd Forum presenters and participants are completely engaged in mathematics. They are passionate in their effort to find ways to better help students master the concepts and tools of mathematics. Every presentation is stimulating; many are truly insightful. All generate thoughtful discussion.
Over time it became clear that there was a serious disconnect between what the students wanted and would need as adults, and the improvements in instruction identified at the Forums. Even if they took advantaged degrees, it is likely that most would graduate lacking many basic insights and language to help them make sense of the available evidence and identify effective courses of action in areas outside of their specialties.
The same focus existed for many skilled educators with whom I dealt during my time at TDSB and OPSBA. Whatever their opinions and desires, they were constrained both by the curriculum that was imposed upon them and the simplistic subject-content driven measurements by which they (and their student) were judged. They had little time or flexibility to instill in their students ways of thinking not easily tested for “objectively”.
I became convinced that the unexamined underlying assumption of most of the curriculum (especially in technical subjects) was to identify and train specialists, even if this wasted the time of those who were filtered out or who filtered themselves out. This long-standing approach has created a pervasive “I hate math” attitude throughout society. Worse still, there is a wide-spread acceptance, even a celebration, of this attitude.
Unwittingly, those who love maths and other subjects have turned them into hostile foreign territory for many, students alienating them from sources of great beauty and creativity. (A classic non-technical example is the number of students who are turned off Shakespeare for life after being forced to study, and dissect, his plays in high school. In the process they tragically lose access to the profound ethical and psychological insights, as well as the sublime use of the English language, that are embodied in Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Henry IV, and Richard III.)
In the necessary process of ensuring that we prepare students for their distinct specialized careers, we have inadvertently neglected to give every student a solid understanding of core concepts, outside of their specialty, that they will need to use as citizens in addressing issues like:
- financial planning and investments (exponential growth, risk analysis),
- crime (population distribution statistics, inductive logic),
- infrastructure renewal (risk analysis, future discounting),
- homelessness (population distribution statistics, risk analysis),
- climate change (algorithms, feedback), and
- vaccinations (exponential growth, algorithms, feedback, risk estimation, population distribution statistics).
These basic concepts, and others related to biology, history, psychology, chemistry, communications, etc., are necessary to make sense of the major challenges facing us.
Without a shared understanding of these basic concepts, communication about public policy breaks down. Dialogue becomes diatribe, conversation degrades into conflict, and facts are overwhelmed by factionalism. And the always fragile fabric of democracy starts fray.
Then came CoVid-19.
Suddenly hearing an otherwise intelligent well-informed person say, without embarrassment “I was never good at math” or “I hate math” or “I just don’t get science” or “Why should I care about Iran?” went from being simply annoying to a frightening matter of life and death.
I’m not suggesting that everyone should be able to model the progress of the virus through a population or develop a reliable test for CoVid-19 infection. Each of these requires a level of expertise that only comes from decades of dedication and focus.
I am suggesting that every citizen should, before a crisis lands on them, be able to understand the information provided by the experts. No-one should be expected to take a crash course in the basic concepts and language of mathematics or virology in the middle of a pandemic just to make sense of the world and keep themselves, and those they care about, safe.