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Algebra? The how, what, and why we learn page 3
Harvey Gold's op-ed column on providing a balanced and relevant education.

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Date published: 9/7/2012


This leads me to raise a different question that gets to the value of the subjects we teach: Not whether we need algebra, but how we teach algebra or chemistry or music or any subject. Do we continue to teach the way classes have been always been taught, and with more or less the same curricula used for decades or longer? Do we assume that everyone who takes biology will become a doctor, dentist, nurse or a scientist of some sort? Should the person who wants a career in law or journalism or computer science be required to take the same courses as those who will pursue a science career?

It is important for our educational system to provide a well-rounded education that exposes students to many different disciplines. Most students won't know what they want to be when they grow up unless they have been exposed to a broad array of knowledge.


Another question for our educational system is not so much what we teach but how we teach it. Must we teach everything as one-size-fits-all, or should we tailor our courses for the value they will have for that group of students? Years ago, as chairman of the biology department at a women's college, I recommended that it offer a general biology for biology/science majors and an alternate general biology for non-biology/science majors. The emphasis could be directed to how the student will ultimately put the information to use. Non-biology/science majors could have more health, nutrition, and environmental information rather than learn all the categories of the animal and plant kingdoms, or the physiology and anatomy of the earthworm or jellyfish.

The same could be done with mathematics by having math for science or engineering students versus math for those students who will be English or art majors. This would not be remedial math or math for slow learners. This would be a specially designed course based on how a group of students will use the information in nursing, construction, art, accounting, or information technology. The goal should be to make the information useful to the learner and applicable to his future needs. Too many good teachers are bound by outdated or irrelevant curricula. Rarely, if ever, are they allowed to deviate from a standard curriculum.

Our educational system needs to be not only thorough but relevant. Under normal conditions students forget a significant percentage of the information they are exposed to unless they can apply it or it is of interest to them. Relevancy is a significant factor and it could influence students to work for an "A" rather than settle for a "D."

Harvey S. Gold is adjunct professor of environmental science at Germanna Community College.

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