Picture the math class of a century ago: students of all ages lined up in rows of stationary desks. Each student has one textbook for all subjects, and they write their practice problems out on their slates with chalk pencils. A lone teacher sits at the front of the room, and calls different grade levels up to her desk to hear them recite their lessons. The room is quiet, with only the murmur of the students reciting their lessons to the teacher as background noise.

Of course, back in those days, an 8th grade education was considered more than adequate for most people. Our expectations of our education system have changed considerably. We expect all students to get at least a 12th grade education and we expect most of them to continue some kind of post-secondary education. The demands on the education system are higher than ever, but what kind of changes in structure need to take place so we can meet those demands?


First, we need to change the expectation that students learn math independently. Learning a new skill is rarely done by sitting silently with a book that explains that skill. Interactive, collaborative learning practices result in better skill acquisition and retention for students. Rather than sitting alone at a desk, students need to be grouped into tables or teams. Classroom activities should require students to work together and talk together to solve problems. Of course, this does require teachers to structure and monitor group learning to make sure that everyone is participating equally. Simply placing students into groups to work while the teacher sits at a desk will not increase student learning.

Conversation and movement

Next, we need to change the idea that classrooms should be silent and still. There still exists the stereotype among some older teachers that noise equals disorder and misbehavior. Instead, we need to realize that conversation and collaboration requires some level of noise and movement. Students should be talking together, moving to different areas of the room, and getting different supplies. Naturally, this is a controlled chaos, with the teacher mandating what level of noise is acceptable, which areas of the room are free-movement zones and which are not. A classroom that is full of chaos and noise is not a productive learning environment without structure and guidelines.

Real-world math applications

After that, we need to change the idea that simple arithmetic practice builds problem-solving ability. Having students repeat row after row of math operations is not always the best way to teach a math concept. Current mathematics standards require students to utilize their math problem-solving abilities, which requires them to know when and how to use different math operations to best solve different kinds of problems. If math problem-solving is the skill that students are assessed on, then students need lots of practice using their problem-solving abilities. Students need to spend more time practicing problem-solving with real-world math applications than doing rote practice of math operations.

Shift in attitude

Finally, we need to change the idea that basic math skills are enough for most people. The business world is constantly telling us that they need more highly qualified math and science experts, but our education system is failing to turn out graduates with those requirements. Education as a whole needs to stress that higher mathematics is a skill everyone should possess, and is one of the best investments to make in future employment opportunities. This new priority is especially crucial for women and minority students, who are far less likely to find employment in highly paid technological fields. To accomplish this, we need a dramatic shift in attitude that starts in lower elementary school. We need to present strong science and math role models to young students. We need to incorporate numeracy into the school day in the same way we incorporate literacy. Most importantly, we need to change the cultural message sent to female and minority students from “you can’t do this” to “you can do this, and here’s how”.

The world has changed a lot in the last hundred years. Our values, priorities and expectations have all undergone significant revolutions. How can we expect any less from the education system that shapes values, priorities and expectations in future generations? It’s time our education system caught up with the rest of the culture.