There Are No Rules Here…

Our students left last Friday, and Tuesday we kicked off our end-of-year faculty meetings. In addition to the usual state-of-the-school report from the headmaster, we had some time in the morning to start exploring Canvas, the LMS we are moving to for the fall. The real highlight of the day, though, was the two hours of department time we had after lunch.

As I’ve written before, we’re embarking on a complete rewrite of our math curriculum. Really, though, it’s not a rewrite, because that implies that we’re starting with what we have, which is not what we’re doing at all. What we’re really doing is creating a brand new curriculum, one that reenvisions what a high school math education should be and what purpose it should serve while aligning with the mission and goals of our school.

Thomas Edison is credited with saying, “There are no rules here. We’re just trying to accomplish something.” That is exactly what this undertaking feels like. There is no road map to guide us, no manual for doing this, and while there are other schools who have reworked their curriculum, their conditions are not the same as ours and so their experiences are only marginally relevant. As one of the people charged with overseeing this curriculum development, all I can do is work from what I know and what I think is right. For me, that starts with backward design. (On a personal note, I did a three-day workshop with Grant Wiggins years ago, and it feels fitting that we are embarking on this project as the education world mourns his untimely passing.)

Notes from our discussionWith that background, on to the substance of today’s meeting. We presented the department with a list of typical topics taught in the courses that lead to calculus and asked each person to pick three topics: one s/he believes we must continue to teach; one s/he believes we must stop teaching; and one s/he believes we must bring into our new curriculum. We developed justifications, shared them through a gallery walk and Post-It Note feedback, and then turned to an open discussion on what common themes we saw; what shared priorities we seemed to have; and what the sources of any disagreements were.

The conversation that ensued was fascinating. It was representative of a faculty that care deeply about their subject but care even more deeply about the students they teach and know what these relative priorities mean. What follows is some of the things people shared in our discussion. I don’t yet know what it means or how we’ll use it, but I do know that these observations are signifcant.

  • There seem to be three main ways people are looking at this:
    • What do students need to know for future courses and for standardized tests?
    • What helps expand students’ mathematical thinking?
    • What connnects the students to math in a meaningful way?
  • The things that we seem to want to discard are more focused on rote memorization (they require less understanding). What’s important to us today is to force students to think and understand.
  • There seems to be lots of agreement on bigger mathematical ideas, but less agreement on specific content. Do we decide what gets kept and what goes, or will that be decided for us by the SAT/ACT?
  • The things we’re interested in dropping seem to be stand-alone things, like conic sections. If they weren’t stand-alone but connected to other topics more explicitly, would we still be intereted in dropping them?
  • Let’s have fewer things and do them well.
  • We seem to like the idea of applications, but not the ones we typically see in textbooks. Compound interest is boring and a little unrealistic because we don’t often have a lump sum to invest, but annuities are more interesting because that’s closer how most people really save.
  • Our priority seems to be on depth of understanding and thought process, not trivial applications.
  • We’re trying to build consensus and a unified approach, but what ahout the flip side of this? How do we let teachers be teachers? How do we build time into the curriculum to let us as individuals do the things that make us great teachers and get our students excited about mathematics?



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