Teaching Mathematics in the 21st Century. Responding to a Bigger World
Even as the utilitarians were urging a reduced mathematics curriculum, others were calling for expansion. World War II had shown Americans a bigger world—a world where Swiss students studied calculus in high school, where scientific breakthroughs were needed, not just to win but to survive. The Commission on Post War Plans called for more, not less, mathematics in education. In 1947 the President’s Commission on Higher Education proposed increasing college enrollments drastically for a minimum of 4.6 million by 1960—a change that would require a college-track mathematics curriculum for millions. By the time the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957 and galvanized public opinion for the space race, educators were already experimenting with new mathematics curricula.
The “new math,” as it was popularly called, emphasized mathematics structure. Students studied sets, number systems, different number bases, and number sentences. Teachers guided children to discover concepts rather than lecturing about them. While many ideas of the new math had merit, application may have been flawed. Textbooks were often hard to read and overly formal. Many parents complained that they could not understand their children’s homework.
In the meantime, the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s flooded colleges with students—many from backgrounds and groups that traditionally had not attended college. To what extent this new college population affected test scores remains unclear, but between 1963 and 1975 SAT scores declined, leading to several major concerns for the mathematics curriculum in the final decades of the century, including how to:
- upgrade the curriculum to match the demands of an increasingly technological society,
- balance student needs with the needs of society and of mathematics itself, and
- teach the expanded curriculum to all of the students.
There were no easy answers. A back-to-the-basics movement called for a return to traditional mathematics—teacher lectures, drills, and tests. But many argued that traditional approaches had worked for no more than 5% to 15% of the students; what was needed was a challenging mathematics curriculum that prepared every student to think mathematically—to develop the foundations in mathematical reasoning, concepts, and tools needed for advanced mathematics education as well as enlightened living in the age of technology.
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