The big shift in math and science education

João Trindade,, CC BY 2.0
João Trindade,, CC BY 2.0

Math and science are typically “love or hate” subjects – as a student you either love them or hate them. But what if these two subjects were more than just lessons in school, lessons you’re just as likely to pursue as a career as you are to never use ever again? This is the subject of Quanta Magazine’s four-part series “Pencils Down: Experiments in Education.”

In the first part, author Kevin Hartnett discusses a major shift in the way math and science are being taught in U.S. schools. The goal: to get students to reason through these subjects rather than just absorb them, to get students to think like mathematicians and scientists. These changes are being presented through two national curricula in the U.S. – the Common Core math standards and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Both curricula aim to engage students to a much greater degree than they have been traditionally. This includes conceptual changes in math teaching such as shifting from equation solving to function analysis. And in NGSS, students are being taught via “storylining” where they’re introduced to a phenomenon that will get them to ask questions that they’ll investigate over the course of months rather than a single day’s lesson on one topic. These could be questions like “How does a seed grow into a tree?”.

Both approaches have been met with pushback, from students, parents, teachers, and politicians. Both curricula are still adjusting to be sure, and this chapter includes discussions about where both might be headed.

What’s certain, though, is that these conversations aren’t over and how math and science are taught in the U.S. will continue to undergo an overhaul until we find the right solution. The Quanta Magazine’s series includes three additional chapters – one that follows science and math teachers in the classroom, another featuring an interview with one of the architects of NGSS, and another that collects personal stories about math and science education from readers. All of which help paint a more complete picture of the challenges and developments shaping this ongoing educational narrative.