If you’re in your 30’s or 40’s, your learning experience with mathematics was probably one in which your math courses were neatly compartmentalized. In high school you may have studied algebra, then geometry, then algebra 2, and then pre-calculus. In such a course load, the names of the courses imply a division between them. Just as a child might not mix his peas and mashed potatoes together, mixing algebra with geometry was simply not done.
Times have changed and now many schools, particularly in Wilmington, are using what is termed an integrated curriculum for math instruction. Unlike more traditional math curricula, where one learns topics in sequence, such as “adding and subtracting with signed numbers” and then “absolute value”; an integrated curriculum may include “investigations.” In these investigations, the student is to gather information using a variety of math concepts at once, as one might do in real life.
You, the parent, whose child is instructed using this curriculum may be confused and wonder why the change. What follows is an examination of the differences between an integrated curriculum and a more traditional approach to math instruction.
There are more realistic math scenarios.
One possible advantage is that students are exposed to more realistic math scenarios. In our day-to-day we are probably using more than one math concept at a time. An integrated math curriculum recognizes this and contains scenarios that, while possibly emphasizing a particular concept, compel the student to use a variety of math tools in order to answer the questions presented.
Written justification is often required.
Another difference is that in an integrated math curriculum answers requiring justifications are the norm. For example, in a typical curriculum a question might be “Find the cost of a 135 minute phone call using plan A.” In an integrated curriculum the question might be “Decide which calling plan is better; plan A or plan B. Explain how you arrived at your decision.” It is the word “explain” that distinguishes an integrated curriculum from a more traditional one.
Often in an integrated math classroom students must provide an written explanation for their answers, and there may be more than one correct answer depending on the explanation. This aspect of an integrated curriculum is arguably advantageous in that in the real world mere knowledge of math is insufficient. Particularly in a work environment one must be able to convey how one arrives at a particular decision. This same aspect of an integrated curriculum, unfortunately, may prove disadvantageous to the student who, while possibly knowing the math, does not excel in writing.
Integrated math may be too different from traditional math.
One disadvantage of the integrated curriculum is that it does not follow the model on which many 30 and 40 somethings learned math. Consequently parents, and some math teachers alike, are ill-equipped to help students learn the curriculum. Also, a student who switches from a school using a more traditional approach to one that uses an integrated curriculum might experience difficulty in the curriculum switch.
Students discover the math concept.
Another important difference to the integrated curriculum is that using the investigations, students are encouraged to work in groups to discover math concepts. The impetus behind this design feature of an integrated curriculum is the belief that a student learns a concept better if she discovers it for herself, rather than if a teacher explains it to her — which in theory is an advantage over a more traditional curriculum. Unfortunately, it is possible that a student might not discover the concept that day. This is especially possible when students work in small groups. A student having difficulty might, nonetheless, be able to get by on the work of the other students with him.
As more schools may choose to switch to an integrated math curriculum it is worthwhile to note that there are some palpable advantages and disadvantages to the integrated curriculum. It is, of course, the advantages that have compelled some schools in Wilmington to make the switch. You, the parent, should be aware that the math itself is not new. If you’re good at math you should still be able to help your child, but the nature in which you give assistance might change.