The Purpose of Math Education

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Math Course Design

When designing a math course, you need to know where your course is aiming.  For your course, what is the purpose of math education?  A clear purpose clarifies discussions on content and organization.  Math education is a vague term that is open to interpretation.  Consider the purpose of your math education program.

When you don’t know the target you are aiming for.

Types of Math Education

The term “math education” means different things to different people.  Like other types of education, the term may emphasize one or more of the following:

  • practical skills
  • test taking
  • memorized facts
  • ability to apply knowledge
  • conceptual understanding
  • communication skills

Achievement, Success, and Excellence?

Discussions on curriculum design often include terms like achievement, success, and excellence.  These relative terms make sense only within a frame of reference.  For example, what counts as success?  Do you consider your student successful if they do well on standardized tests without knowing how to apply their knowledge?  Can successful students have a great memorized knowledge but no conceptual understanding?  Achievement, success, and excellence mean different things depending on your educational purpose.  How do you measure the success and achievement of your students?

US Education

As an example of a purpose of education, we consider the point of view of the US government.  The US Department of Education (ED)’s point of view is reflected in their mission statement:

Mission. ED’s mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.

This mission prioritizes global competitiveness as well as achievement and excellence.

The Art of Teaching Math

In contrast, the Art of Teaching Math promotes math education that includes self-knowledge, personal reasoning ability, knowledge of how to apply reasoning in real-life situations, and positive feelings about math are more important than test scores. We are concerned with educating students in a way that respects students’ natural abilities and their intrinsic motivation.  We encourage students to see math as a way of thinking rather than a collection of facts.  Contrary to commonly held assumptions, this de-emphasis of test scores actually leads to high achievement on mathematics tests. It also leads to longer-term mathematical understanding and high comfort level with mathematics.

Your Choice

As a course designer, you have a choice to decide what the purpose of your math education program will be.  Consider the different aspects of mathematics education mentioned in this article, and decide which ones are most important to you.  Keep these priorities handy when you make future decisions on your mathematics course design.