A Shocking & Brilliant Interdisciplinary Math Curriculum

How about math that matters? While visiting family in Northern Michigan, I came across a fascinating math curriculum by Smith, Lusse and Morss. Following is part of the preface to the curriculum:

In the teaching of mathematics, the end of the sixth year is a critical point. By that time the pupil has completed the learning of the fundamental operations and processes of arithmetic, so that, unless square root is studied, there are no further processes to be learned. There have been many experiments to determine the type of of work that may most profitably be given in the next two years, either in schools organized on the junior-high-school plan or in those in which the elementary organization continues through to the senior high school. In most cases there is general agreement that a thorough training in arithmetic should be the major objective.

This emphasis upon arithmetic does not, however, imply in any way a return to the type of arithmetic of a generation ago in which, with formal computation as a the sole end in view, the problems had almost no relation to the daily lives and interests of the pupils and but little relation to the ways in which the average adult uses arithmetic in life situations. Through coordination, modern education brings out the social significance of such subjects as history, geography, civics, and everyday science. The course in arithmetic can, if developed along similar lines, present a large amount of valuable information about our American daily life, our vast resources, our modern business organizations, our great industries, and our local, state and national forms of government. With all these topics, or at least with the larger features pertaining to each, our future citizens, ­­- the boys and girls now in our schools, -must be familiar if they are take their places as intelligent members of a community.

Can you guess the date of the curriculum? It was published in 1930 as a shared project between David Smith of Columbia Teachers College, Eva Luse of Iowa State Teachers College, and Edward Morss (a textbook editor). While some of the wording hints at the date, it reads with a strange relevance for today as well.  It is an applied math text organized around real world themes. Here are some of the chapters and themes:

  • Computations that People Use in Everyday Life (earning money, spending money, making money, saving money)
  • Percentage Applied to Simple Mercantile Problems (short cuts and checking, buying and selling on commission, discounts on wholesale purchases, the merchant and his problems, borrowing money, and review of percents)
  • Computation Used by the Individual in Banking and Investing Money (doing business with a bank, interest and notes, general nature of corporations, protecting investments)
  • Study of Useful Geometric Forms, with Practice in Drawing (geometric forms in nature, familiar solids, geometric forms in art, drawing geometric figures)

Part two of the curriculum includes topics like math and our food supply, power supply, clothing supply, transportation, and building industries. It also includes things like stocks and bonds, the cost of government, reading graphs and statistics in the real world, what the government does for us, measurements, everyday science and the metric system.

This is not just a curriculum that answers the “why are we learning this?” question of students. The entire text is built around that question. It would be nearly impossible for a student to go through such math education without having a rich understanding of why math is important for the rest of life. If you hope to one day own a car, take out a loan, finance a new idea, figure out your taxes, buy or sell something, or buy a large-ticket item. In fact, the curriculum is not only focused on the uses of math in the future lives of the students. It spends significant time exploring how math is useful for students in the present.

Note that the purpose of this curriculum is to review or teach the application of math to real world contexts that will be relevant and valuable to most any citizen. It is interdisciplinary in that it touches on business, government, science, home economics, art, and social studies. And it is deeply applied. There is not a single math concept that is taught or introduced apart from the real world contexts where it might be used. There is repetition of math concepts, but not a repetition of the concepts in a single domain of life. In other words, it provides review and repetition without promoting boredom and monotony. It further talks about math as a tool for life, and reading through it I can’t help but think that most learners would readily recognize this fact. In an era where there is frequent focus on teaching math as preparation for the next level of math (in high school or college), this struck me as a wonderfully fresh, creative and promising model. It also offers examples of how math can be learned and reinforced amid self-directed learning projects, project based learning, problem based learning, case-based learning. In fact, I see hints of those approaches in this 80+ year old curriculum.

I found this curriculum (as two thin bound books) in a small used bookstore in Alpha, Michigan, a town of less than 150 people that is celebrating its centennial. Somewhere around the late 1960s, the school closed, and the beautiful but slightly dilapidated building is now used to house a small town library, a used bookstore, a handful of shops, and a small restaurant. I couldn’t help but wonder if these books were not once the curriculum used at the school. So, standing in the hallways of a once vibrant but now closed school, I discovered that the teaching and learning continues…even if it is just through the serendipitous discovery of a brilliant and cutting edge curriculum from 1930. As much as I enjoy looking at the emerging and future possibilities for teaching and learning, I continue to discover rich and valuable examples from the past.