Recently, my sixth grader and I went for a walk. As we wandered around our neighborhood, I was eager to hear about his life – friends, activities, etc. He had other plans for our one-on-one time. He wanted to learn about imaginary numbers. My child studying Pre-Algebra had decided he was ready for Algebra II.
There is no denying it – Math is amazing! I totally understand why someone would be fascinated by it and want to know more. But as someone who teaches high school math each day, I know all too well the dangers of rushing through the foundations of mathematics.
Somewhere along the way, math curriculum has become a race. Everyone is going as fast as they can to get to the upcoming mile marker, presented as the next math course. Sadly, this mentality is creating students that are missing the foundations they need to be successful in the long run.
Frequently, we have students in the upper level math courses that have just done too much too soon. When they were in middle school math courses, they could do the basic math skills and so they kept going. They achieved success fairly quickly on Algebra I material, so they thought they were ready for Algebra II. The repetitive practice built in to Algebra I got bypassed for what happens next.
In Algebra II, they get to learn what happens next, but they don’t have the cognitive maturity that comes with age to truly see how it all comes together. They missed out on learning the importance of doing step by step procedures in simple Algebra I problems that is vital to be successful in more complicated Algebra II problems.
When they do make it through Algebra II, Precalculus awaits them. Precalculus is my personal favorite. So many problems in Precalculus are puzzles. Trigonometric identities just make my heart happy. But for students that never took time to do all critical thinking parts of Middle School math courses and don’t have the problem-solving techniques, it is a painful experience.
It is painful for the teacher too. Above all we want to teach our students to love the subject of mathematics as much as we do. The Middle School years are a key element in building that love. The simplicity and repetitiveness of the math curriculum in those years are designed to allow time to explore the amazing extras in mathematics and create a foundation that can multiply that love in future courses.
So as my son went on and on about how he already “gets” his current math topics and I needed to teach him something worth learning, I smiled that knowing smile that you get when you work with teenagers. Then I redirected us to box and whisker plots. We had a wonderful time talking about outliers and how they can mess up everything. I am excited for the day that he and I can discuss imaginary numbers, but our children grow up fast enough, why rush things?
After all, slow and steady wins the race.
Kelly Powers teaches Math and is the Math Department chair for Kolbe Academy Online. In her free time, she enjoys eating chocolate and running races.