209 to 7

If a mathematician were asked what these two numbers had in common, she might wonder if they were both primes. They are not. A gambler might consider them lucky numbers because one of the prime factors of 209 is 11 (as you could find out by asking google) and 11 goes with 7. But that, like most gambling, is most likely just a random act. I got to thinking about these two numbers when I counted the appearance of two words in the Common Core Standards in Mathematics, fraction and spreadsheet.

Yes, fraction as you might guess appears 209 times and spreadsheet appears just 7 times in the K-12 math standards. Fraction appears very nearly 30 times as often in the Standards as spreadsheet does. And to make this ratio even worse, spreadsheet almost always appears in league with “calculators, spreadsheets, and computer algebra systems” or “other technology.” And in the Content Standards spreadsheet only appears in the high school portion.

Now I ask you which of these terms represent what our 21st century students will be working with as adults? Today our business and STEM workforces use spreadsheets as their primary quantitative tool and few people in business or in STEM professions manipulate fractions in either their workplace or home. Oh sure, we use ratio and proportion which produces rational numbers, and we use fractions in some of our recipes and in the headmath we do. But we no longer calculate in fractions on paper or on computers, and fractional values are today almost always dealt with as decimals and not common fractions. By the way the word decimal appears in the Standards only 48 times.

A 21st century curriculum would certainly seem to focus on those tools, skills, and concepts that would be of most use to our students when they enter the workforce. Now I grant you that fractions do have some uses, and manipulating fractions would help a student handle rational algebraic equations in case you feel strongly about that. But does it make any sense in this internet/spreadsheet age to spend the one to two years of every student’s math education focused on fractions? Does it make any sense that fractions should be a stumbling block that we require of every student? Does it make any sense to think of spreadsheets are only faster calculators relegated as an afterthought in the Standards or in our math curriculum? Should functions which are the heart of scientific thinking, spreadsheets, and programming appear less often (172 times in the Standards) than fractions and only then starting in 8th grade.

The fundamental question we teachers must always ask is: “Are we educating our students for the past or for the future? If we are educating our children for the future as, of course, we must, then what should the spreadsheet to fraction ratio be in those 21st century standards?