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Curriculum Problems in Junior High School Mathematics


by William David Reeve - 1928

THE human material with which we deal in the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades of the junior high school is very different from that of the corresponding grades thirty or more years ago. Not only is this true, but they differ more widely among themselves than did their predecessors in native ability, experience, and interests.

THE human material with which we deal in the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades of the junior high school is very different from that of the corresponding grades thirty or more years ago. Not only is this true, but they differ more widely among themselves than did their predecessors in native ability, experience, and interests.


A generation ago the great central objective of the high school was to get pupils ready for college. To-day the central aim is to develop well-educated citizens. These changes in the nature of the high school population and in the great central purpose of American education have brought about a need for changes in the more specific objectives in teaching particular subjects like mathematics. In many schools to-day we are developing neither scholars nor well-educated citizens. The thoughtful teacher realizes the need for adjustments to meet the demands of the times. The "humdrum" teacher is content to let things remains as they are.


In the junior high school the course in mathematics has been better organized than that of any other subject, but it has been too much a shoving down of the traditional material from the senior high school field. One needs only to examine a few of the many series of mathematics texts to see that this is true. As a result the senior high school teachers object to the teaching of certain topics like demonstrative geometry in the junior high school because they feel that such teaching will spoil the pupils for the later work in the same subject in the senior high school.


We must approach the final solution of the problem as scientifically as possible. The organization of the curriculum should be fundamental and more psychological than the traditional course. In order to do this there are certain important steps in curriculum building which must be kept in mind.


In the first place, we must find out what mathematics is worth learning as far as the well-educated citizen is concerned. This involves the setting up of valid objectives to be obtained in teaching the subject. The second step is to determine the nature and the extent of the content material which will best enable teachers to realize these objectives. In the third place, we need to study our methods of teaching and learning. We know a great deal about the former, but practically nothing about the latter. Teachers ought to know more about how pupils learn mostly easily and most economically. To-day we do not know how long it takes to teach anything. Granted that the objectives chosen are valid, that the content material selected is best suited to realize these aims, and that our methods of teaching are satisfactory, we still need to find out what part of the content material can be learned by a pupil at a given age. It is probable that we are trying to teach too much or that we are attempting to teach things that are too difficult, or both. The fourth step is to provide a testing program that will enable us to find out how well certain fundamental aims have been realized, if at all.


Such procedure means that curriculum construction will be dynamic, that a curriculum committee will be a standing committee. We ought to be constructively critical of our content and methods at all times. This is just the place where we have failed in the past, because in regard to content, at least, certain parts of traditional material has remained unchanged for over two thousand years. One would hardly dare to express an opinion as to the age of certain matters of technique.


What has been said above is no a priori argument against any of the time-honored content material or methods of presentation that can be justified on any rational basis. The fact that any topic or method has stood the test for ages is some reason for respecting both, but it does not mean that age alone gives the topic or method precedence over any other, or that it should become sacred. Professor Nutt says:1 "Teachers and supervisors are inclined to think in terms of the subject instead of in terms of the student. Subject-matter has been standardized instead of stages of mental maturity of students. The teacher and the supervisor have been dealing with the subject so long that it has become a familiar acquaintance; hence it has become more or less a sacred thing. The subject has become a habit with them; it is regarded as something permanent and abiding; hence to leave out any of the sacred facts seems almost sacrilegious and criminal. On the other hand, the student is transient. Students come and students go; hence to leave the student out is justifiable. In fact, leaving the student out may be getting rid of an unappreciative butcher who haggles and mangles the sacred subject most horribly in .his attempts to find food for mental maturing. The relief that is usually manifested by teachers and supervisors when the student, who is not getting on, drops out is a definite indication that the subject is more important to them than is the student. Whenever teachers and supervisors begin talking about education by means of the subject 'getting on' in the student instead of the student 'getting on' in the subject, then a radical change will come about in the teaching in secondary schools."


It is evident that no satisfactory list of objectives can be set up merely by consulting existing courses of study. While they may be used as evidence of what is being taught throughout the country they do not often give much help in suggesting what ought to be taught. Moreover, it is well known that some of these courses, if not all, tend to perpetuate certain obsolete processes and antiquated business methods.


It is equally true that the best objectives cannot be secured by making an inventory of the current textbooks in mathematics. In most schools they are the courses of study. They, too, are frequently guilty of overemphasizing unimportant or obsolete material. It is also true that not all textbook writers are able to suggest newer and better things. Often their books are made to conform exactly to certain state syllabi or other courses of study.


The standardized test makers of recent years have erred in including in their tests exercises and problems that thoughtful teachers everywhere have no desire to see perpetuated in our schools. In fact many of these undesirable elements were obtained by the makers of tests from existing courses of study and textbooks. Thus, it is obvious that such tests cannot be used as the sole basis for determining a list of desirable objectives.


We also know that it is not safe to try to determine what mathematics ought to be taught by counting the frequency with which certain mathematical terms are used in a few current editions of newspapers and magazines, although some writers have seemed to believe that such procedure is valid.


Finally, it is fair to say that we cannot determine our objectives by going out in the world and asking Tom, Dick, and Harry what mathematics is useful to them. The fact is that not one of them ever knows just what use he has made of mathematics. Moreover, they probably have given no thought to the question of determining how they might have used mathematics profitably if they had only thought about it a little while or if they knew more about it.


Any and all of the above criteria may be of service to us in making up a list of desirable objectives, but they will not suffice. If the objectives set up are to meet our modern needs, we must have at least one other criterion that is supported by vision though it should not be visionary. This last criteria is the opinion of expert teachers of mathematics—those who are able not only to tell how they use mathematics, but also to show how mathematics may be used in the present and in the future for the betterment of mankind.


When people have to consult with experts they usually get the opinion of the best they can afford or find. The writer has had the assistance of such a group of experts in setting up a list of objectives2 in mathematics for the junior high school, but the list is too long to include here.


If all the children of all the people are coming to high school, and it should be possible for every normal American boy and girl to do so, two things ought to be accomplished. First, the boys and girls should be given an opportunity to learn more about mathematics than their ancestors knew. The modal or common amount of mathematics actually learned by the ordinary American youth is not half of what he ought to be able to appreciate if only we were alert in waking up to our possibilities. For some we shall have to make the content simpler and less formal. We shall have to teach them not so much mathematics, but more about mathematics. They can't all be of the research type. For those who like the subject and who have the ability to pursue it further, we ought to provide a course by the end of the senior high school that will at least include everything up to and including the fundamental ideas of the Calculus. Mathematics has played an important part in the development of human affairs and it is perfectly clear that it will continue to do so. To be truly educated one should have some idea of the role mathematics has played in human progress, and to appreciate as fully as possible its power and its beauty as a science. All of this means that our elementary courses should cover as broad a range of mathematical ideas and processes as possible. This is why the Calculus should not be left out. It need not be left out if we are careful to omit some of the "dead wood" from our courses. Such a scheme takes into consideration both the necessity for a happy and more intelligent followership and the right type of leadership. The trouble with our traditional scheme is that it makes our brilliant students the most retarded of all. Our educational machine is geared so as to turn out a product that is mediocre.


To continue traditional organization of content and method means to continue the practice of failing large numbers of pupils instead of trying to give them a course with which they can succeed. Nobody can justify the large percentage of failures that we find in algebra in so many schools. It is a bad thing for any child to fail. The loss to mathematics itself and to the children who fail is far greater than we realize. Many a student has been marked "failed" when he really has succeeded in the best sense of the term. So much depends upon what we expect of him and upon what he really can do.


As Professor Nunn3 has so well pointed out: "Mathematical truths always have two sides or aspects. With the one they face and have contact with the world of outer realities lying in time and space. With the other they face and have relations with one another." The first he illustrates by saying that one is enabled to determine by scale drawing or by calculation the height of an unscalable mountain peak twenty miles away from the fact that equilateral triangles have proportional sides. While, on the other hand, the truth itself can be deduced with complete certainty from the assumed properties of congruent triangles.


According to Professor Nunn, our main objective should be to make children realize, in an elementary way at first, this two-fold aspect of the growth and development of mathematics. How can we plan our courses so that we may realize most fully such an objective? In the first place, it seems to me that we should not plan separately for the two aspects, the practical and the theoretical, in the curriculum. Let us therefore try to choose hypothetically as the most desirable and important that theoretical content which is at the same time the content which arises naturally out of the child's attempts to apply his mathematical ideas and methods to practical ends in his daily life. And by "practical" I do not imply the narrow use of the term which is so often misleading.


If we can have agreement on this last point, then we are compelled to select as a basis for theoretical discussion those topics in mathematics in which the practical value of the content material is most clearly represented. This is not an easy task because it is not always easy to get general agreement as to what things are practical. Moreover it is well to remember that in actual classroom practice we should not only try to conserve the things which are certain to be practical or even contingently so, but to eliminate from the course such material as is impractical if not impossible or obsolete. Such reorganization alone, if honestly carried out years ago by teachers of mathematics, would have made the lives of many children much happier as well as more valuable.


In line with our purpose we should place more emphasis upon a clearer understanding of fundamental concepts and methods of thinking and less on the pure algebraic technique and ease of doing mechanical processes. It is doubtful whether the automatic application of principles develops anything that can be considered of general educational worth in itself. This does not mean that we should not develop skill in the manipulation of algebraic processes, but only to the extent that certain matters of mathematical thinking may be understood. I say this because a great majority of our high school students do not continue the study of mathematics beyond the ninth or tenth grades at best. And even for those who continue because they like mathematics, or expect to need it, greater power for future work will be gained if the time is spent in giving them insight and appreciation rather than mere emphasis on manipulation.


In the first place, it is pretty well agreed that the majority of students will never have occasion to use the skill they acquire and hence had better spend the time to better advantage. We ought to determine just what these skills are that need not be highly developed and also to determine those skills that all will need to have developed for later use and dwell only on these until they are completely mastered.


Again, our conventional methods have delayed the teaching of many interesting and valuable things in the elementary and secondary schools. The English and continental schools of Europe are far in advance of us in the way they have organized their courses in mathematics. Very few adults in this country ever had any opportunity in the high school to obtain any idea of space relations through a study of space geometry. Every normal child should obtain some of the fundamental ideas of solid geometry although much of what has traditionally been taught should be omitted. It seems perfectly clear at this time that the conventional tenth-year course in geometry will soon become a combined course in plane and solid geometry where the general mathematics course is not adopted. It seems unintelligent to live in a world of three dimensions and teach the geometry of Flatland.


The elementary ideas of trigonometry, in many respects very simple, have been omitted altogether from the mathematics work of most secondary schools. Much of this work is not only easier for an ordinary ninth-grade pupil than many topics in algebra, but is far more interesting and more valuable. Besides, trigonometry gives us better than any other subject an idea of our "infinitesimal nature" in the midst of space about us.


What harm can come from omitting a great deal of the material that we have been teaching in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry and taking for granted much more that we have been forced to try to prove with little or no success? The old-fashioned geometrical method of proving the Pythagorean Theorem can be replaced by a simpler and shorter algebraic method known to every competent teacher.


Taking the country as a whole the teachers of junior high school mathematics have made greater progress in solving the problems connected with their part of the curriculum in mathematics than have the senior high school teachers in their field. There are several reasons why one is justified in making such a statement In the first place, some of the junior high school teachers are better teachers, even though their knowledge of advanced mathematics is meagre. Perhaps this is because so many of them have been recruited from the ranks of the teachers in the elementary school, many of whom are graduates of our best normal schools and colleges. Secondly, some of them understand child psychology better and have had more experience and training along this line. In the third place, they have not been so hampered by tradition in organizing a course of study for the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. This has enabled them to be more progressive and experimental in their methods in trying to find out the best material to include in each grade. Again, they do not have to prepare their pupils to meet extramural examinations and hence are not obliged to point all of their work toward one final test thus becoming formal and wooden in their methods.


The result of the combined efforts of all those interested in the teaching of junior high school mathematics has had a salutory effect. We have to-day a rather wide agreement as to the general features of the course in junior high school mathematics, even though the order of treatment of topics is not standardized as it has been in the senior high school. Thus it is quite generally agreed now that the course in mathematics in the junior high school should be determined by the general purpose stated previously, namely, to develop well-educated citizens.


This difference in purpose makes a difference in content possible. It permits us to open the door of mathematics to every boy and girl so as to give a broad view of the subject in order that each one can choose according to his ability and preference having seen the general nature of the subject and what the science means. If his taste and needs require it, the pupil should be permitted and encouraged to go on. If not, he should not be forced to continue the study too long.


Because of the wide range of individual difference in native ability, experience, and interests we need to keep in mind the guiding principle in the selection of subject matter for each grade. This principle states that the subject matter selected should be that material which will be most valuable to the pupil provided he leaves school at the end of that year. In accordance with this principle the aim in the seventh grade should be to keep up a proper use of the fundamental skills in arithmetic which the pupil has learned in the first six grades. This is done by giving such applications in the arithmetic of the home, of the store, of the bank, of thrift, and the like as the well-educated citizen is likely to need. In addition, the pupil is introduced to the study of intuitive geometry, a subject in which he looks at a figure and draws certain conclusions. For example, he looks at an isosceles triangle and says "the base angles are equal" because he cannot conceive of their being otherwise. In other words, "he feels it in his bones."


There are three questions In geometry which may be asked about an object. First, "Where is it?" Second, "What is its shape?" Third, "What is its size?" The answers to these questions give rise to the geometry of position, form, and size. These topics should be treated in such a way as to give the pupil some idea of geometric forms in nature, architecture, design, and the like.


Under the head of the geometry of size the pupil is introduced to simple problems of direct measurement and thus is led to understand simple algebraic formulas like C=pd, A=pr2, d=rt, and the like. The need for a knowledge of evaluation of these simple formulas leads to such equations as 3l=12, n+4=10, c—5=14, and b/2=6 whose solutions can easily be presented in the seventh grade.


In the eighth grade a little more than one half of a pupil's time should be given to a further consideration of intuitive geometry and to the fundamental applications of arithmetic, such as, problems of trade, banking, insurance, corporations, and the like. The remainder of the year should be given over to a study of algebra. It is better to continue the study of algebra which was begun in the seventh grade and to finish it in the ninth year than to condense all of the treatment in the ninth grade.


If a pupil ever uses algebra at all, his greatest need will be a knowledge of the formula. Here is where he gets his idea of what algebra means. Even if he doesn't use formulas, he must read with them. And so it is with the statistical and the mathematical graph. Moreover, if the pupil uses formulas at all, he will need to know how to solve the simpler types of equations. To these three important ideas we may add directed numbers as the fourth thing in algebra which the well-educated citizen should know.


In the ninth grade the course in elementary algebra should be completed and a unit of numerical trigonometry given. There is no question that intuitive geometry, correlates well with both algebra and trigonometry. This can easily be done because the trigonometry is based on intuitive geometry and the pupil's previous knowledge of algebra. Moreover, there is to-day a clearer conception than formerly of the nature of trigonometry and its relation to modern life. It gives the pupil a knowledge of indirect measurement in contrast to direct measurement where the measuring instrument is laid directly on the distance to be measured. It can be made so simple as to be much easier than many of the traditional algebraic topics, it is far more important, and it is more interesting to the pupils.


A short course in demonstrative geometry should be given so that the pupil will have a chance to find out what it means to prove something. This can be done with a few axioms, postulates, and theorems reinforced by some carefully planned work on original exercises.


It is clear that the junior high school course briefly described above is general mathematics in the best sense. With this basis it is possible in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth years to give a glimpse into the more advanced parts of geometry, trigonometry, algebra, analytic geometry, and the calculus to those pupils who are able and interested enough to study further.


I have mentioned all of the various departments of the field of mathematics in some detail in order to emphasize at this time the importance of requiring that a teacher of mathematics in the junior high school be well grounded in subject matter.


A reasonable and a desirable requirement, which ought to be met by everyone wishing to teach mathematics in the junior high school, would be just such a course as I have described above, culminating in the Calculus. Of course, no one will teach calculus in the junior high school, but he will teach other material better if he knows what lies ahead. In other words, a teacher should know his subject as thoroughly as possible in order to have the proper background for his work. This is the first step in his preparation. In no other way can he be qualified to determine valid objectives.


In the second place, the teacher of the junior high school mathematics should be well trained in methods of teaching. This involves a knowledge of the various types of lessons, lesson planning, the art of questioning, and the like. It is clear that with all the success teachers in the junior high school have there is still room for improvement in methods.


In the next place, teachers should be encouraged to attend regularly the associations of mathematics teachers to which they should rightfully belong, to read the mathematics journals and yearbooks, and, occasionally, to spend a few weeks In school to strengthen and renew their interest in mathematics. Nothing is of any more importance to-day in connection with the improvement of the curriculum than the training of teachers in service. It is sheer folly to spend a great deal of time reorganizing the curriculum unless at the same time the teachers of mathematics keep pace with the changes that are being made around them.


Implicit in all that I have said is the great need for better organization and understanding among mathematics teachers as a group. The junior high school teachers occupy an enviable position between the teachers of elementary arithmetic on the one hand, and the senior high school teachers on the other. Each group needs to know what the other groups are doing. All of these groups should be represented and kept vitally interested in any organized study of curriculum problems. To-day this is not the case. There is too much apathy and neglect of these important connections.


Finally, there is the need for wise and adequate supervision. Someone ought to discover what a supervisor does when he supervises. We have had a great deal of discussion of late about supervising, but very little real supervising is done. We need to spend less time on some of the mechanical and physical phases of school work and more on the ways of improving instruction.


It is only by the cooperation of all concerned—the superintendent of schools, the principal, the supervisor—on down the list to the humble classroom teacher that we may expect to achieve the great aim of the American public school system.







1Nutt, H. W. The Supervision of Instruction. Houghton Mifflin, 1920, page 53.

2Smith, D. E. and Reeve, W. D. The Teaching of Junior High School Mathematics, Chap. Ill. Ginn and Co., 1926.

3Nunn, T. P. The Teaching of Algebra, page 16. Longmans, 1927.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 29 Number 4, 1928, p. 334-344
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 5755, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 2:58:20 PM

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