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Core-Plus Math: Rocky Road to Making Math Exciting for AI Future

role of core-plus mathematics

Core-Plus Mathematics is a 4-year curriculum developed at Western Michigan University to replace the traditional school courses. Its main goal was teaching math through mathematical modeling and mathematical inquiry applied to real-life situations. This was intended to hone students’ mathematical thinking and problem-solving skills as opposed to training them in by-hand calculation skills and typical math problems that are abstract and divorced from the everyday life that students experience. One of the key features of Core-Plus Mathematics was its integrated approach that interwove various mathematical concepts rather than teaching them in isolation, thus helping students see the interconnectedness of math in the real world.

Although this innovative research-based curriculum was strongly aligned with Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM) and recognized as “exemplary” by the U.S. Department of Education Expert Panel in Mathematics and Science, it has also received critical reviews from university professors and researchers in education. A number of longitude studies have shown varying results, and the overall impact of shifting to a Core-Plus Mathematics curriculum from the traditional one remains controversial. However, there is one aspect that these studies haven’t taken into account: the world’s drift towards more AI-assisted technology. In view of these latest developments, it’s high time we revised the potential ramifications of this novel approach to teaching math.

What are the benefits of Core-Plus Math for students?

This curriculum was designed to engage students in a deeper exploration of mathematical concepts by using real-life situations, modeling, and problem-solving. Core-Plus Mathematics offers multiple benefits for students.

Deeper understanding. The curriculum moves beyond rote memorization to help students grasp the “why” and “how” of mathematics. This foundational understanding better equips them for future real-world applications.

Problem-solving skills. Core-Plus Mathematics places a strong emphasis on problem-solving. Students learn to apply mathematical concepts to real-world situations, fostering critical thinking and analytical skills.

Integrated learning. Instead of teaching math topics consecutively in isolation, the CPMP curriculum integrates various math concepts so that students can see how they relate and impresses on students that math is a connected and cohesive subject.

Conceptual learning. Core-plus shifts the focus from memorizing procedures to conceptual learning, enabling students to approach new and unfamiliar problems with confidence, thus reducing the need for outside math homework help.

Tech integration. The curriculum encourages the use of technology like graphing calculators and computer software to enhance learning and explore math on a deeper, conceptual level.

Real-world relevance. By actively using modeling and real-world applications, students learn the practical relevance of math in their daily lives and future careers.

Collaborative learning. The curriculum often encourages collaborative learning, helping students develop teamwork and communication skills.

Adaptability. Core-Plus can be adapted to meet the needs of diverse learners, making it an inclusive approach to math. One of the early peer-reviewed papers documented most gains in measurable math skills of Core-Plus Mathematics students in minority groups (African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans).

All these features of the CPMP make students much more engaged, eager, communicative, flexible, and curious than students studying from more conventional programs – the qualities that I, as a paper writer, cited more than once in our blogs as necessary for successful self-learning, fulfilling career, and becoming a valuable asset for employers.

Core-Plus Math criticism

Despite all these advantages, the Core-Plus program has some potential downsides for students. During the initial implementation of the curriculum in the nineties, it occasionally met pushback from parent activist groups concerned that their children’s math skills might not be enough to meet the demands of the college-level courses. According to some surveys, students reported feeling “completely unprepared” for college math.

Most critics believe the key problem lies in the absence of conceptualization and abstraction. The course books look like typical textbooks: they are text-centric, explain everything in concrete situations, and use photos and pictures instead of formulas. While this can benefit some students, others might find abstract symbols more comprehensible.

A Medium author writing under the pen name of “Reflective Observer” has a series where they explain Core-Plus Mathematic course books chapter by chapter, repackaging “what the authors of the book wanted to teach” and adding information “sorely missing” from the course, like formulas, laws, and historical notes about scholars who first described them. Reflective Observer dismisses Core-Plus books as “fiction books” and “chapter books” and opines that English Learners will hate the course “because it is incomprehensible,” while native speakers will hate it “because it is vague and diluted.”

Other potential downsides of the Core-Plus Mathematics curriculum for students include:

Lack of routine practice. Core-Plus Math reduces the emphasis on routine practice and procedural fluency. While this is done to promote deeper understanding, it may leave some students less confident in basic math skills.

Potential gaps. Focusing on fewer topics in greater depth can lead to gaps in students' familiarity with certain mathematical concepts, which is of particular concern for students planning to pursue STEM fields that require exposure to a broader range of mathematical knowledge.

Standardized testing. Core-Plus Mathematics can differ significantly from traditional math courses. This might pose challenges for students taking standardized tests. Some tests, like SAT or ACT, may require additional preparation to bridge the gap. That said, however, there are still no conclusive studies that would prove that either traditional high-school math courses or Core-Plus curriculum prepare students better for standardized testing. Moreover, a series of large-scale comparison studies have shown that Core-Plus Mathematics students scored significantly higher or with no differences on standardized achievement tests. Further investigation is needed to clear this point.

Varied implementation. Core-Plus Mathematics curriculum is very flexible, which can be a downside under certain circumstances. The quality and effectiveness of the course can vary depending on each teacher’s implementation and the resources available. Inconsistent implementation can lead to differences in educational experience from one classroom to another. To address this issue, comprehensive training for teachers is desirable. Schools need to invest in the expertise of their educators to implement the Core-Plus curriculum effectively.

Parental wariness. Parents unfamiliar with the Core-Plus approach may have concerns and questions about how their children learn math. They might be wary of any “experimental” programs, feeling that it puts their children’s chances for higher education and entering STEM fields at risk. Ongoing communication with parents is vital to address these concerns.

Time concerns. Core-Plus Mathematics can be time-consuming, given the emphasis on in-depth exploration of mathematical concepts, group collaboration, and independent student investigation. This might be a concern for students with busy schedules or those who want to cover a wider range of topics in a shorter time.

Not ideal for everyone. Each student’s learning style and needs are individual, and Core-Plus Mathematics might not be the best fit for everyone. While some may thrive in this interwoven, in-depth curriculum, others respond better to a traditional math setting that focuses on memorization and procedural fluency.

Difficult transition. Transitioning from traditional math education to Core-Plus Mathematics can be difficult for both students and teachers. Some students find it hard to adapt to the new pedagogical approach and the greater emphasis on conceptual understanding. Likewise, transitioning from a high-school Core-Plus curriculum to a more traditional approach in higher education can be challenging. For example, in the Andover survey mentioned earlier, the overwhelming majority of students who returned surveys reported being placed in remedial math classes in college.

Overall, the effectiveness of the Core-Plus Mathematics curriculum can vary widely depending on various factors, including the quality of implementation, teacher’s preparedness, and individual student’s needs and goals. It’s important for schools and educators to carefully consider these potential downsides before implementing the curriculum.

Is Core-Plus Math a good way to prepare students for an AI-driven world?

Although some of the criticism toward the Core-Plus Math program is valid and worth addressing, some features marked as negative can be key to adapting high-school math for the demands of the future and preparing students for careers in an AI-driven world. For example, David Klein, professor of mathematics at California State University, Northridge, in his open letter to the Department of Education, co-signed by over 200 mathematicians and scientists, criticized CPMP for overemphasizing data analysis and statistics while leaving the coverage of traditional algebra and arithmetic “too shallow.”

Of course, from 1999, this criticism might have looked compelling. However, in 2023, one cannot help but wonder: how this is a bad thing? How more data analysis and less repetitive computational procedures can hurt students’ preparedness for the future?

Like many contemporary education approaches, Core-Plus Mathematics aims to prepare students for the challenges of an AI-driven world. Here are some reasons why CPMP excels in it.

Focus on problem-solving. Core-Plus Math places a strong emphasis on honing problem-solving and critical thinking. In an AI-driven world, where routine tasks are automated, these skills are the most valuable and sought-after by employers.

Conceptual understanding. The curriculum encourages a deep understanding of mathematical concepts rather than rote memorization. This aligns with the need for individuals to understand how AI and algorithms work, even at a basic level, to make informed decisions.

Adaptability. The Core-Plus Mathematics approach promotes adaptability and flexibility in mathematical thinking. This is crucial in a world where AI technologies and tools are constantly evolving.

Collaboration. The curriculum often includes group work and collaborative problem-solving, fostering skills vital in many AI-related professions, including teamwork and communication.

Data analysis. Core-Plus Mathematics curriculum often falls back on statistics and data analysis, which are fundamental in fields related to AI, such as machine learning and data science.

Interdisciplinary connection. The curriculum’s integrated approach encourages interdisciplinary connections, which are valuable when working with AI technologies. AI development often intersects with other fields, such as computer science, engineering, physics, biology, etc.

Computer skills. While not the primary focus, the use of technology in the Core-Plus Mathematics curriculum, for which it has been criticized in earlier studies, can introduce students to software tools used in data analysis and mathematical modeling.

Looking at some arguments of CPMP critics from the current perspective, I am reaching the conclusion that the Core-Plus Math curriculum’s main failing was being ahead of its time. Core-Plus Mathematics is a forward-thinking curriculum that aims to equip students with a more practical understanding of mathematics, preparing them for the challenges of our complex, data-driven world.

However, it is essential to note that no single approach can fully prepare students for the future. Core-Plus Mathematics is just one piece of the puzzle. Students benefit from exposure to computer science and programming, digital literacy, ethical discussions surrounding AI, and a broader, interdisciplinary approach to learning. The ability to adapt, learn continuously, and apply mathematical thinking to real-world problems is crucial to thrive in the evolving landscape of modern life. Core-Plus Mathematics can be a valuable component of the preparation for the AI-driven future when integrated effectively into a well-rounded education. I wish I could leave you with a takeaway more groundbreaking than this, but balance is key – as always.

Elissa Smart Elissa Smart
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