, Catherine linked to a story
that Ralph Raimi
told about a high school girl he evaluated, on behalf of her mother, who was becoming concerned about her problems in math class.
He talks about specific problems with her math education, which begin with her great confusion about basic fraction manipulation and the operations of algebra, but in the end are dwarfed by her resentment of math.
She had never heard of "the number line", and when I suggested a yardstick she said she had never used one. She didn't know what numbers appeared on a yardstick, or what I was talking about when I wanted to know the position of the markings between inch or foot labels. So I drew a picture and got a reluctant agreement that there must be such things.
His conclusion about her future vis a vis mathematics is pretty dismal.
She is scheduled to take a non pre-college math next year (some-
thing like statistics one term and business math the other, but I've
forgotten what she told me on that), and she could probably pass that one
now. It is cruel and inhuman to push algebra and trig on her, and truth
tables forsooth, this year, given her background and her school's attitude
towards textbooks and other such unnecessary explanations. Can I recommend
she spend extra time on math, besides the torture of a meaningless class
every day? But I haven't found out if it is even legal for her to stop
her present course at all. I'll have to ask around.
If I were asked what seriously could be done to teach something
useful in the name of math to this kid, I would advise starting with the
arithmetic of fractions, i.e. what she failed to learn in the 5th and 6th
grades and since, and their applications and meaning of course. I believe
this could be made interesting to her once she knew she didn't have to
learn all those symbol manipulations she has been plagued with these last
five years. But there is nobody to do this for her, and there is no clear
incentive, since all she thinks she needs is to pass the next few exams.
Now here is the part I find desperately sad.
She livened up considerably when we talked about things which were
not mathematics. She wants to grow up to be an emergency room nurse.
She likes her biology class and her "history and music" class, where she
learns about "classical" and "baroque" music. She says she can't take
chemistry, which I had suggested as useful for a nurse, because she wasn't
going to take Math III. There was lots of math needed for the chem course,
she said, more than for the physics. (Yet she asked irritably several
times during our interview "what good was all this math" for her.)
She didn't know, and apparently Ralph didn't either, that the certification examination for a registered nurse in most if not all states (and certainly in New York, where 'Sarah' lives) contains algebra questions, and nursing school requires students to be able to pass a college algebra course. They like RNs to be able to do basic calculations of dosages and mixtures and the like; careless errors by an RN can be dangerous.
I've had nursing students who hated math as much as 'Sarah' did, who suddenly found that they had to take a college algebra class in hand and try to get a passing grade in order to get a job in their chosen career path. All of them suffered hugely; some of them couldn't do it at all. I knew one student who, having long since finished most of the coursework required to graduate from her nursing program, had been working for several years as an aide in a nursing home while taking college algebra over and over, trying vainly to get a passing grade.
In order to avoid any more mathematics, this girl has already shut the door on chemistry. Will she shut the door on her chosen career just as casually?
[ Afterword: I may have to eat my words. After I wrote this, I went looking online for information about nursing licensure requirements and nursing programs. The national licensure test for RNs is the NCLEX-RN. On a brief review of some practice questions from the NCLEX, I did not find any specifically relating to math (although I did find some relating to chemistry). Most of the nursing schools I found did have some kind of algebra requirement, although often high school algebra was sufficient. It may be that requirements were once stiffer at Binghamton University's nursing school, where I encountered my struggling students; it may be that requirements have been relaxed. If anyone can fill me in on the status of math in nursing education, I'd like to know more about it. -- CarolynJohnston
-- CarolynJohnston - 05 Jun 2005
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