Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Self-determination in math: who benefits?

Today I learned from a friend that her son B didn't make it into the highest-level math class at his new high school, despite being by far the strongest math student in his middle school (as measured by grades and standardized test scores).

My friend faults B's middle school math teacher, who (to her credit) recognized that the Interactive Math Project curriculum was way too easy for B. Her solution? Let B do whatever he wanted to during math class. So B mostly goofed off or read novels.

There are a number of education experts out there (for examples on line, see Bruce Smith at who feel that kids learn best when determining their own course of study. In fact there's an entire education model, the Sudbury Schools, constructed around this premise.

Self-determination may work well for the most diligent, driven kids. But most young students, however good at math, require specific assignments and incentives.

In letting them study what they want to, how many B's are we letting through the cracks?

And, however much they currently enjoy their academic freedom, how will they feel once they face competition from those who had, at the very least, a challenging textbook to work through and strong classmates with whom to compete?

Here's an exchange I had with Bruce Smith about how well Sudbury Schools train children in math:

Do they learn how to derive the Quadratic Formula, graph rotated ellipses, and calculate the area under a curve? In other words, are they able to jump into college-level calculus upon graduation? Please tell more! I'd love to hear more about the math curriculum in particular.

Sudbury students can do absolutely as much math as they like. In fact, they can even go on to get a PhD from MIT and become chair of the Math Department at the University of Oregon (to cite the career of one graduate). Of course most won't go that far, but then, most don't need to.

As for "the math curriculum," there's no particular sequence any Sudbury student must follow. All areas of knowledge are open to study using whatever methods work best for each student, who may seek help and consult experts when they wish.

When the curriculum is life itself, and finding one's place in it, the Sudbury experience is that people will learn (a) all they need to be successful in life and (b) the depths and nuances of subjects for which they have a personal passion.

The fact that he doesn't answer my question (about content), but a different question (about preference), doesn't exactly disabuse me of my concerns.


Anonymous said...

I have a child who read novels in math class in 5th grade. Her teacher didn't want to make her angry by taking away her books and having her pay attention. Also, she was ahead of most, but not all the other kids in her class.

This is a smart kid. But still a kid. She needed the teacher to have the self disclipline that she doesnt' have yet.

We are hoping for better luck this school year.

And, I am desparately trying to figure out how to keep her from falling through the cracks.

bky said...

How was your friend's son placed into whatever class he got into if it wasn't based on grades and standardized test scores?

Katharine Beals said...

Bky, The high school uses its own placement test, which appears to be more content-based than the other tests this boy has taken. Another disadvantage he has is that our school uses Investigations, while most of the other feeder schools use Everyday Math, which has more challenging content than Investigations does.

lgm said...

Afterschooling is what we did when our son was in your dd's situation. Middle school was no better..they won't allow a test out; all they do is give the knowledgeable student the h.w. to do quietly while the other kids get the repeat of the algorithm explanation and work a few examples with the instructor.

Best to find a challenging math curriculum and go thru it with your child. Otherwise, she will fall thru the cracks and not make the honors cut. The homeschoolers have led the way need something like Singapore Primary Math, Thinkwell, Aleks, MEP,or cybershala depending on budget and learning style.


lgm said...

Sorry, that link was chopped: