Answer: The way they are taught is out of date.


By Physician’s Weekly blogger, Skeptical Scalpel

A guy named Steven Levitt is tired of helping his teenagers with their quadratic equations and imaginary zeros. Because they will never use these skills again, he thinks teaching these calculations is futile.

Who is Steven Levitt? He is the University of Chicago economist who wrote the book “Freakonomics.” A recent article in the Wall Street Journal said Levitt thinks “the way math is taught in schools is outdated and impractical in preparing students for today’s data-driven world.”

Substitute the word “medicine” for “math,” and you will echo what many medical educators think is true.

Levitt and Stanford math-education professor, Jo Boaler, are trying to modernize math. Instead of the current Algebra II as a third-year of high school math, they suggest allowing high school students to study data science.

British technologist and math education reformer Conrad Wolfram thinks we no longer need to teach hand calculations and that “the fundamental problem with today’s math curriculum is that it doesn’t acknowledge that computers exist.” He said students should know when to use quadratic equations but let the computer do the calculating. The savings in time could be used to teach data literacy.

Likewise, Boaler said, “What we don’t need is to make them memorize the times tables.”

The Journal piece said, “Math curriculum has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s.” The same is true of medicine. In 2012, I blogged, “Now that a resident can carry a computer in her pocket and access everything there is to know instantly, why should she have to memorize formulas, chemical reactions and other minutia? With the exception of the rules limiting work hours, medical school and resident curricula have changed very little since I was a student and resident some 40 years ago.”

Educators in the state of Washington are restructuring Algebra II to include only what colleges and industries feel is necessary for students to prepare for higher education. They want to emphasize things like “mathematical modeling, data science, quantitative reasoning, and statistics.”

We in medicine have the same problem as the mathematicians. There is a lot of talk, but no one does anything about it. Maybe when Levitt, Boaler, and others are done restructuring math education, they can help us bring medical education into the 21st century.

 

Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chair and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times.For the last 9 years, he has been blogging at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog has had more than 3,700,000 page views, and he has over 21,000 followers on Twitter.