Common Core: Integrated Math vs. Traditional Sequence – why the integrated approach doesn’t work

22 Aug

The Common Core Standards were developed and  I am not a fan of common core for many reasons, but that is not the point here.  With or even without common core, there has been a few states that argue that the better way to teach math is using an integrated approach rather than the traditional approach.  Let me define each.

Traditional Approach:  Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2

Integrated Approach:  Take the topics of Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, Advanced Functions and Modeling, Trigonometry, Probability, and Statistics and integrate them into 3 math classes called Math 1, 2, and 3

The rational behind the integrated approach is that math is integrated in the real world, we model things with mathematics and includes all the topics that one uses in the integrated approach model and our overall focus should be on Modeling Mathematics using the tools of mathematics, not separating out math into separate areas of Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2.

The above is very true – now let’s look at some other pieces of the picture:

1.  Students struggle with mathematics and is probably one of the most difficult subjects we teach

2.  Can students still learn to model and learn examples of mathematics with traditional approach?

3.  How do students learn?  Students learn best when they stay on the same subject and keep linking new knowledge to existing knowledge rather than jumping from subject to subject.

4.  Do we care more about students actually learning math or the idea of students learning math?   In other words, if method A sounds better but method B produces better results, which should we use?

I would like to see some research studies done comparing student knowledge using an integrated approach with a traditional approach.  Maybe if the integrated approach was done seamlessly, it could produce the desired results but in North Carolina, this is how it is done: (an example of a Math 2 class)

Unit 1:  Geometry

Unit 2:  Statistics

Unit 3:  Probability

Unit 4:  Algebra

Unit 5:  Algebra 1 & 2

Unit 6:  Trigonometry

Unit 7:  Advanced Functions and Modeling (things students used to not see until Pre-Calc like graphing rational functions)

Unit 8:  Algebra 2

The students jump around so much from topic to topic that they don’t make connections while in an Algebra 2 class, they would constantly be working with algebraic relationships and then doing applications of those relationships.  Each unit would have some continuity from the previous unit rather than doing transformations one day and then laws of sines followed by graphing rational functions.  Students struggle to remember everything for the final because each unit is so disjoint from some of the other units.  There is a lot of overlap from Math 1,2 and 3 – students are still doing quadratics in math 2 and they fully covered them in math 1 and although we haven’t started yet, I see them on the syllabus for math 3.

So although the “idea” behind Integrated Mathematics “sounds good” in theory, in practice it is not working, it is not in the best interest of the student as a learner, and I believe that students are learning less mathematics and certainly making less connections.  If I had to learn math that way, I doubt I would have gone on to be a math major, I think I would have been very confused.

These educators forget that those that are meant to go on in mathematics, just WILL, you don’t need to force it.  If you teach them Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and make Geometry a mix of Geometry and some Probability and Statistics, you will continue to have students go on to STEM fields just as we have always had.  Our focus needs to be on doing a BETTER job teaching mathematics in general, not trying to constantly CHANGE the standards, the curriculum, and the scope and sequence.  If we took all the money we spent on those things and put it into putting the really talented math teachers (whose students have said they can REALLY learn from, even those that say they HATE math and can’t do math) with the not so talented math teachers, that is how we would see math achievement improve.


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