Forget Coding, Let’s Change Up How We Teach Math!

As any math teacher will tell you, one of the most common questions students ask is:

When will I use (enter math skill here) in real life?

It can often be one of the hardest questions to answer too.

Because most students see right through the classic “real world applications” that have been part of math lessons forever.

You know the type. If train A leaves at 10am, and train B leaves at 10:30, blah blah blah.

Spiked Math Comic - Math is Delicious

Am I right?

Before joining the Edublogs team, I taught just about every math course there is between pre-Algebra and AP Calculus (inclusive). I’m a true math nerd, have a degree in math, and would like to think I was a pretty decent math teacher. I’d work hard to provide my students with meaningful problems, projects, and learning experiences.

But I’d sometimes get in trouble (had at least one parent complain to my principal) for my honest answer to my students when I got the “when will I use this” question.

I told the truth.

Here’s what I said.

“You probably won’t ever use it again outside of math class.”

The specific skills being taught, like solving a quadratic equation or understanding the Polar coordinate system, are just not commonly needed in most jobs or in everyday life.

But that isn’t why we learn mathematics, and certainly isn’t why I am excited by teaching it.

We learn math in school to practice logical reasoning. Math is the language of science. True math is an art. Math is exceptional at teaching us how to follow rules, discover relationships, problem solve, and organize thoughts and ideas. I could go on and on.

In short, we don’t learn math for the actual concepts and skills being taught. 

This is where many policy makers make a mistake. For example, my home state of Texas was so horrified that the US is so behind the rest of the world in math education, that the solution was to require all students to take more math courses. Interestingly, recently there’s more debate on dialing that back and requiring fewer traditional math courses. It has all been quite an efficient use of time and resources to say the least.

A better approach would be to improve the courses we already have by working to make them more relevant, present students with problems that appeal to our inner-curiosity and that they want to solve, which would motivate students to achieve at higher levels.

But how do we do that?

Hour of Code and CS Education Week

I’ve been reading with great interest all of the publicity that the Code.org sponsored ‘Hour of Code’ and Computer Science Education Week received recently. There’s a ton of fantastic stuff!

And today it hit me, as I’m sure is already being done by many, that the math classroom is the perfect place to introduce programming basics.

Sadly, and please correct me if I’m missing it, but I didn’t see any real mention of math on the Code.org site or any of the linked tutorials and lessons. This is a shame because the math classroom would be a perfect place to introduce coding concepts to students not enrolled in a traditional computer science course.

Coding Ideas In the Math Classroom

The first program I ever wrote, in 8th grade, was just a few lines on the TI-81 graphing calculator to solve the quadratic formula. This way I could check my work easily on tests (and maybe cheat a little on homework).

TI-81

Now that I think about it, there are a ton of ways that coding could and should be brought into the math classroom on a daily basis.

For example:

  • output and printing to screen teaches concepts like Cartesian plotting, graphing functions and conics
  • using the logic of loops, if, else, etc to teach principals of proofs
  • number sense – integers, floating/rounding, and how using the wrong data type effects programming
  • writing simple programs to solve the quadratic formula, the midpoint theorem, and more – automating the wrote memorization processes we’ve been drilling and killing for years
  • *have more ideas, leave a comment below and I’ll add to this list*

What’s Your Point?

There’s a growing movement to require more computer science education in schools.

But perhaps we can leverage the subjects we already teach to engage students and introduce them to coding ideas in a systematic way.

Much of this is already done in pockets. But the required standards and curricula (I’m looking at you, Common Core), have yet to build in coding principals and experiences.

I’d love to see the heavy influencers encourage integrating computer science and coding theories into existing courses at younger ages (could also be science class, and other subjects too), instead of the stronger calls for additional computer science courses in high schools.

Much like education should be much more about learning experiences than learning outcomes, teaching coding to younger grades should be more about logic and bigger concepts than it is a specific language.

There’s a ton of hubbub out there about “learning to code”. I submit that we don’t all need to learn to code, per se, but we can leverage the engagement and excitement around coding to bring math and other concepts to life. All while laying the foundations to make coding more accessible to all.

But Math Teachers Can’t Code!

Says who?

One of the most common obstacles we hear about why schools don’t teach computer science is that there aren’t enough qualified educators out there to meet the demands.

But there’s a trained army of math teachers out there willing to find new and better ways of delivering their content, that with a small amount of preparation could no doubt be leading the way.

So, how can we make time in their curricula and schedule to make it happen?

*Featured Image: Calculator

Ronnie Burt

Works for Edublogs. Former secondary math teacher and wannabe musician. Follow me on twitter @ronnieburt!

21 Responses

  1. Jeff Branzburg says:

    What goes around comes around. Back when what were called ‘microcomputers’ were introduced to schools in the mid 1970s, it was usually the math teacher who had the responsibility. In New York City, it was the Association of Teachers of Mathematics who ran workshops on using those TRS-80 and other early machines. And, there was not much software, so teachers and students needed to … code! (Although we didn’t call it that, we called it programming.) The relationship between math and programming has a long history!

  2. Have you heard of Bootstrap? It’s programming aligned to Algebra Common Core. http://www.bootstrapworld.org

    • Ronnie Burt says:

      Excellent! I had not seen that, but first glance looks pretty good. Would love to see projects like this become more mainstream.

      Thanks for the share!

      • Emmanuel Schanzer says:

        Hey Ronnie – stay tuned. We’ve got some really exciting announcements lined up for this Spring, which will bring us a lot more into the mainstream. In the meantime, you’ll be happy to know we already train teachers across the country, with students in Washington DC, MA, NY, CA, MD using Algebra to program videogames.

        (And don’t forget, most programming languages aren’t mathematical at all, which may explain why there’s been so much hesitation about using them.)

  3. Sean Ward says:

    Eric Freudenthal at UTEP is doing some work along what you are saying. You should make contact with him.

  4. Sage Moore says:

    I vote for really juicy mathematics and computing electives. If we had a course called the Mathematics of Animation, I am sure I could fill it with students really not interested in AP classes.

  5. John says:

    I use math in my daily work. I hated math classes, except for Geometry. I’m an Air Traffic Controller. “Who’s going to get to (point B) first, and by how much, is a time/speed/distance equation that I solve more than once a day. It has been a lucrative career. I’ve never been a coder and I’m older than you because there were no graphing calculators in my school. In fact, my brother who’s a year older, learned how to use a slide rule, then learned how to code, then wrote code for the Hubble. I applaud anyone who tries to engage kids in the nerd subjects. Keep up the good work and keep searching for new ways to “reach” kids.

  6. Yvette says:

    So true, I’ve had Yr 4 students suddenly grasp decimals through the use of small fractions of a second when programming animations, as well as Cartesian plane, positive negative integers, fractions and so much more by learning Scratch. Coding is fantastic for teaching maths to the young ones.

  7. Carl says:

    Hi,

    For seven years, I have been involved with teaching kids to use math and programming to make models of scientific problems. Generally we use Starlogo and Netlogo for our elementary/middle students in Project GUTS after school clubs, projectguts.org. Elements of these lessons would easily lend them to be imported into math and/or science classrooms even at the HS level.

    High school students can enter our state’s Supercomputing Challenge, a more intense team-driven competitive version that includes technical writing/presenting to engineers and scientists the results of their project. You can look at previous years results at http://challenge.nm.org/.

    Integration of programming needs to be in the math curriculum, IMHO.

  8. Jim Kelly says:

    As communications has gone global and requires some mathematical literacy to deal with it, mathematics learning with this application is needed. From very basic billing arithmetic to break even points between “Pay as you Go” units to monthly billing plans for say voice and text. There are a lot of good mathematical learning opportunities that need to be explored.
    Jim kelly
    k-12math.info

  9. MrsEllis212 says:

    Being a person who left the business world with a degree in HRM and another in MIS, about to finish a master’s with two specializations: Math and eLearning/Technology, I can definitely see how math and programming (coding) are aligned with each other. During summers, I have taught Gaming Animation using Blender software. The amount of math (and physics) that goes into the game is a great way to teach several math concepts as well.

  10. Clay says:

    Hello, I’m working with a budding non-profit that is educating and equiping kids with technology, to help improve the independant learning skills while boosting their litereacy and STEM skills, you said you had alot of other ways that math and programming could go hand in hand and I would like to know them all!

  11. Dawn DuPriest says:

    Hi,
    I loved this article because I had the same lightbulb about a year ago. I am a software engineer who’s changed careers. I now teach seventh-grade math. I had been telling my students for years that algebra is the language of technology, and they need to know it in order to command their phones, computers, and tablets – to abstract problems they run into in daily life. I got a class set of computers last year and started introducing programming through Khan Academy’s javascript / processing environment. We have woven coding into lessons on the coordinate plane, integers, ratio and proportion, equations and inequalities. It’s been amazing to see what they create and some of the unexpected benefits and challenges.

    I have been keeping some of my lessons and projects at http://codinginmathclass.wordpress.com/ I would love for you to take a look as I’m the only one in my department using coding in any core class, and so it’s helpful to share ideas with other educators that are familiar with it. I map all of my coding lessons to common core standards.

    Thanks for promoting coding literacy. The conversation about including it in math class is long overdue. This is how math is done in our day. Mathematicians, scientists, and statisticians – well, anyone, in any career, makes use of computers to understand their work. Programmers make use of math to understand theirs.

  12. Dawn DuPriest says:

    Also – Common Core has really disappointed me with the lack of emphasis on technology in the standards. They do a good job of reflecting the depth of thinking needed to understand math, but there’s a total disconnect with how math is actually done in the world today. Kids are still expected to do operations on multi-digit decimals by hand and graph systems of linear inequalities by hand. The proportion of hand-calculation to technology computation is out of balance with reality. If computers can do the calculation, our brains and our time are freed up to create the model and understand the reasonableness of the solution.

  13. Kim says:

    I have taught Math, Computer Programming, and Art for years. When we start doing games in Programming, they finally learn why they need to know some of the math. One of my favorite projects was creating a dart board. They had to create random numbers to figure out where to throw a dart (some used a wind setting to mess with the user). Once the dart landed, they had to determine the score for that dart (Cartesian plane, distance formula, radius of the circles, etc., etc.). They no longer asked “where am I going to use this?!?”

  14. Spencer says:

    The other day in my college 120 math class I was thinking this exact same thing. The way they teach us is just not acceptable. I mean, c’mon, I’m learning (Or relearning I should say) things that have been taught multiple times through highschool and some basic stuff even from middle school. And I was your average slacker who never payed attention to anything and got A’s, not an AP/honors student. And yet with all this knowledge(as limited as it is), I only just recently realized what I could really do with math.

    Also, I think that the way they block math into different sections and say “Well, we’re not there yet so just do it this way…(until 3 weeks have passed and I tell you that everything you learned before is useless/obsolete)”, is not the way to approach it. It just makes it seem like an endless list of things to memorize that aren’t useful. When I ask “Why does this work?” and the teacher replies “Well, just follow the formula and you’ll get the right answer”, alls I can think is..

    …. WTF?

  15. Keri Lamle says:

    I do teach programming (coding in elementary grades), but I prefer to hold off introducing even the basic of programming until 3rd or 4th grade. The first few years of elementary education can be a time of exponential growth for many young students. Instructional time is better spent focusing on Math, Science, Literacy, and Social Studies. Waiting to introduce logic based programming concepts until grades 3 and 4 allows time for the student’s to grow their background knowledge and their core learning skills. I have noticed that somewhere around age nine students want to be more independent and have a stronger drive to see a project through to completion. They start to take their education more seriously. Additionally, I have found students will seek to do tasks right even if it means do the same task repeatedly. These emerging facets to the students skill set make it an ideal time to introduce programming.

    Just my humble opinion :)

  16. Donna says:

    Great article! I would love to bring coding into the elementary classes. I had the opportunity to get a few teachers to participate in the ‘hour of code’ back in December and the kids loved it. They were so engaged and more important they were successful and felt it. I believe it is meeting them where they are at and taking them to the next level. There is an inner-desire that drives them. As a technology staff developer for elementary I would love to hear from others who have had some success with implementing some lessons after the ‘hour of code.’

  17. Juan says:

    Every math subject finally found an application in coding. The answer to every possible “When will I use (enter math skill here) in real life?“ question is “when coding”. Is not just this but, if you’d teach math using some programming language, you could have things that are at the same time strict mathematical definitions and real time uses of it (thing, the definition of function composition using any programming language is a definition and an instance of function composition at the same time). Plus you could get rid of the monster amount of symbols, each of which have many meanings in different math contexts, and replace them with just a few ones. I predict in some years math notation will be dropped and some standardized programming language will be used instead.

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