Why mathematics in science teaching?

A dominant point of view in mathematics education today holds that mathematics teaching should be relevant to life, that it should be oriented towards concrete applications and real-world understanding. This stand has influenced a number of major mathematics curricula developed in the USA, for example, the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, The School Mathematics Project of the University of Chicago and the TIMS Curriculum of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Curriculum development in India, as exemplified by the Curriculum Framework for the Primary Years developed by NCERT, and the number of innovative projects represented at this very Seminar, is also influenced by such ideas.

In the USA however, there has also been a fairly strong reaction to these trends, from a section of the educated parent community as well as from professional mathematicians. These people hold that excessive use of manipulable materials, data handling, pattern recognition, estimation and so on - activities which are dear to the heart of the dominant school - actually result in a de-emphasis of mathematical facts, skills and algorithms which constitute the core knowledge of mathematics. These critics challenge the notion that mathematics can be discovered through experiences. The debate has been a complex one, reflecting many hues of political ideology, and drawing sustenance over the years from ever more sophisticated philosophical theories.

The dominant trend in mathematics education is motivated by a need to make mathematics more relevant and accessible; and the current debate touches the very core of the legitimacy of mathematics education. It is unfortunate however that cognitive studies of the problem (even existing studies of situated cognition) and evidence from empirical research have yet to substantially contribute to this discourse.

Whether or not mathematics needs other subject areas to develop its pedagogy, it seems clear that other subject areas do need mathematics. Let me begin with a general, I believe uncontroversial argument, calling for a holistic, integrated perspective in primary education. It seems obvious that the essential simplicity of the primary teaching content does not justify a curriculum so deeply fractured by subject areas, and so mandatorily broken into half-hours. What is surprising, in this situation, is that a move for integration has only come from the mathematics educators. In other subject areas, and more specifically in science education, there has been no corresponding move towards integration with mathematics (though the integration of science with social studies has been recently considered and tried out, most notably in the NCERT's Curriculum Framework).

Given the dismal achievement of literacy and numeracy in our primary schools, we have in our country an even stronger argument for integration. Concerns about literacy and numeracy should not confined to the language and mathematics periods: these basic skills should be reinforced through other content areas.

For the other subject areas, including science, such integration is important for yet another compelling reason. Language and mathematics are, after all, our tools for understanding the world. Verbal and quantitative skills not only enrich our experiences, they are necessary for learning and doing science.

Jayashree Ramadas January 1999