Monday, July 5, 2010

Band-aids and crutches

One of the reasons I started this blog was to have a "holding cell" for presentations and the documents distributed at them.  I've started storing some at the left such as our developmental math manual (the bible for our program), a description of our program model, and a presentation I gave at our state IMACC conference this spring.

I'm really proud of our developmental math program redesign and the fact that we went from a chaotic mess to an organized unit in less than 3 years.  In that timeframe, our pass rates jumped from 48% on average to over 65% and higher, depending on the course.  Because of the amount of changes and the outcomes achieved in a short period of time, I get requests to learn how we did it.  I'm happy to share the details both in print and in person since words on a page can't adequately convey all that happened to make these changes a reality.

Yay us!! 

Well, not exactly.

Our school has done a great getting students through algebra.  I have no bones about the truth.  We're not curing cancer here; we're getting them to pass algebra.  For those of us who teach it, that's no easy feat, hence the sharing of knowledge to help others do the same.

But should they be taking so much algebra?  Well now, that's a whole other question.  Answering that question and the efforts to make changes associated will also be documented here because that's what I'm working on right now and honestly, that's where my heart lies.  My students regularly tell me I'm a rebel, that I'm bucking the system.  And here's a little secret:  they like that.  It gets me into hot water occasionally but life's too short to sit in cold water or something like that...

Point?  Sometimes you need band-aids and sometimes you need crutches.  We've developed some pretty successful band-aids that will help a lot of schools until the larger problem, the one that needs crutches, is fixed.  That looming problem?  Are we teaching the right content to the right students?  I would argue no.  However, I want to be a part of the solution, not just the argument.  I like making things "right", fixing stuff, solving problems.  It's why math is so fun to me but it's also why these endeavors are so much fun too.  And things are fixable.  We complain a lot in education and blame everyone below us because it's easier and solving problems is just plain hard work.  But as a recovering Pollyanna, I do think a lot of hard work will get us to a solution.

So until we've got the Almy/Foes version of mathematical crutches, we've got band-aids for you in various shapes and sizes.  The dispensary is at the left.  If you'd like a personal consultation with the nurse, well, that can be arranged too.


  1. This ties in perfectly with an issue that is coming up in the PLS class I am taking this summer. The class is about using interactive multimedia projects for student learning.

    What I've read seems to say that good projects have to be broad enough for students to really investigate on their own and make new discoveries.

    This makes total sense to me. One of my original ideas concerned students constructing a mathematical model to describe a set of data and then use the model to make predictions.

    I wonder now if that is a little too specific. Maybe I need to have students do something like investigate global warming. How can we decide if it is really happening? Can mathematics (and model building) help us make that decision?

    However, now my worry becomes whether having students complete a project like this will mean that we cannot complete all the course objectives. There is SO MUCH we are "supposed" to cover in a College Algebra class. And yet shouldn't my focus be on real learning, and what mathematics can do for us (and maybe whether there are things it CANNOT do for us)?

  2. You nailed it as far as this struggle we're always in: authentic learning vs. covering content. It seems like we have to cover so many things "just in case" they ever need them but just in case doesn't happen that often. And the core stuff that we gloss over, mathematical thinking and judgment, is needed near daily!

    Have you looked at CRAFTY? There's been some work done to reinvent college algebra and put more modeling in it. There's also something called "The Right Stuff" that was developed by Rob Kimball through an NSF grant. It's a whole host of investigations for college algebra.

    I'd like to develop a new colege algebra course at RVC that's an alternative with a more modeling/applied focus. Once Heather and I get this MLCS course off the ground, we want to look at a follow-up.