Learning and Doing Math Vocationally

A frequent theme in the many interviews I’ve conducted over the last year, as well as in much of the reading I’ve done for American Experiment’s “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree” project, has been the importance of people in manufacturing, the trades, and other fields having a reasonably solid grounding in math.  Algebra is perhaps the most frequently mentioned type of math, with trigonometry in second place.

Yet isn’t it axiomatic that American young people do only tepidly in math in international comparisons?  And doesn’t it stand to reason that American students taking vocational courses do weaker still compared to U.S. counterparts taking academic classes exclusively?  “Yes” and “Yes” are the answers—though with vital twists and exceptions regarding the second question (see below).

One of my interviews for “Great Jobs,” as well as for a related book I’m writing, was with Gen Olson, who served in the Minnesota Senate from Minnetrista for three decades before retiring five years ago, and who had even longer experience in what used to be called “vocational education” but which now goes by names such as “Career and Technical Education.”  In addition to serving as chair of key education committees in the Legislature over the years, she holds a doctorate in vocational education from the University of Minnesota.

Not for the first time the two of us talked about her on-target views about how “some people learn better in an applied way.”  How they’re “more proficient if they’re hands on.”  How we “pay lip service to individual differences and styles of learning.”  How we “put students in the same mold.”  Or more graphically, how “we put them through the same meat grinder.”

Dr. Olson also told a story about a group of teachers, a while back, taking a tour in which they came upon a student working at a machine of some kind.  When the group moved on one teacher stayed back watching what he was doing.  “I don’t know how many years she taught,” Gen said, “but it was the first time she had ever seen one of the mathematical principles she taught actually being used.”

Or as noted in “Connecting Mathematics Teaching with Vocational Learning,” in a 2015 issue of Adults Learning Mathematics: An International Journal (What?  You’ve never picked up a copy?): “For many students in this study [in England], learning mathematics was perceived as separate from their vocational learning.  However, when learning mathematics was connected to students’ vocational development, values and culture then the subject became more relevant, meaningful and coherent.”

Or more specifically, “[M]athematics in the workplace becomes a tool, in contrast to being the object of activity in mathematics classrooms.  The transition from school to the workplace, therefore, involves changing students perceptions of mathematics from object to tool ….”

In thinking about this, and focusing on just one occupation, it’s hard not to think about carpentry, where “measuring twice and cutting once” is a commandment.  Or maybe better, precision manufacturing where algebra and trigonometry are essential.  Might a significant number of young men and women be interested in at least considering such well-paying fields and careers if they had more opportunities in high school (and before) to learn mathematics in truly “hands-on” ways, thereby helping them feel reasonably comfortable and kindly about a routinely intimidating subject?

It goes without saying that career and technical education is not for everyone.  But it should also go without saying that CTE very much is for many students, for purposes both vocational and academic.  Not that the two spheres are necessarily divisible.