Curriculum Review

Thursday 1 October 2015

Cat amongst the pigeons!

One of the unquestionable strengths of the IBDP is the committment to curriculum review. Each course offered is reviewed in seven year cycles to ensure that the curricula are current, coherent and relevant. In many cases, changes are small, fine tuning, but occasionally some more significant changes are required. For the DP mathematical Studies course, the last review was fine tuning, but the next one is going to be a bit bigger! There are now two documents on the OCC from last June and December respectively that outline the current state of the proposed changes for the next change which is due for first teaching in 2019. This post is a discussion of what we have seen so far!


The only information published about this is in the two review reports on the OCC. I am not the IB and everything I write here is based on having read and thought about those two documents. As such, the facts are the same as the facts given in the reports, the rest is just discussion of the significance and speculation! Its early days, there is much yet to be decided.


The following is a summary of the key changes being proposed

  • Choice of two courses in group 5 for mathematics - as yet without names
  • Both courses can be done at HL and SL.
  • 1st course, much like exisiting SL/HL course only with reduced content to allow for more time developing mathematical thinking skills.
  • 2nd course based more on wider 'applications' of mathematics. Possibly like the current mathematical studies course but with a new HL element.
  • A common element to all courses (60hrs)
  • Both SL parts will be subsets of the respective HL courses
  • There will be some intersection between the elements.
  • A combined 'Mathematical Skills and Concepts' element that will encompass the IA.

The Distinction

This is the key point and we await further clarity on the key difference between the courses. That said, there is plenty of evidence within the reports that points to the following. Again, I must stress that following is speculation based on the reports.

One of the courses will be a development of the current HL/SL arrangement. One imagines that this is still the route we would advise for those with ambitions in the field of mathematics, engineering and other areas that require a significant degree of mathematical competency. This will be more like mathematics as we know it.

The other course will be a development of the principles behind the current mathematical studies course. This is based on the idea that understanding of mathematical concepts and knowledge is still a fundamental part of any knowledge base AND that there are a broad range of 'applications of mathematics' that apply across a wider range of career paths. 

The big change here is the introduction of an HL element. This is accredited to recognition that fluency in the application and the significance of a wide range of mathematical ideas is increasingly relevant and desirable. The focus here will be less on the mathemmatical structure and more on the mathematical significance. 

The Rationale

If anyone has been following Conrad Wolfram's computer based mathematics movement, then you will have already have considered his key contention that there is now less need for 'calculation' and more need for 'application' and that this a natural result of significant technological developments (see Wolfram Alpha as an example). Watch the talk to get a fuller idea, but the main thrust is that mainstream compulsory mathematics education should move towards teaching the significance and application of techniques and let computers do the calculation. See the example below..

Consider the Pearson's product moment correlation coefficient. The mathematical structure behind that calculation is a wonderful bit of mathematics, but I would suggest that few truly understand the structure, whilst many understand the principle of the test and significance of the result.

The contention is that, for most, only the latter is necessary, BUT that being an expert in the latter is something we should value highly (hence the HL extension)

It is important to note that no one in the field is arguing that mathematics as we know it, no longer has a place, but simply that what we consider what is best for compulsory mathematics education to age 18.

Of course, the key knowledge question here (sorry, couldn't resist the ToK reference) is the one about the age/stage at which we might start diversifying. If we still need mathematicians then we mustn't close that route to too many too soon. In the case of the IBDP, this is easily handled. At 16 it is fine to ask students to make this choice.

Avoiding Confusion

Some conversations I have had already with teachers suggests that there will be work to do to avoid confusion. It is currently possible to read the documents and conclude that there will be two new equivalent courses called (for now) 'Pure maths' and 'Applied maths'. I think this is potentially confusing since there is no obvious differentiation in the level of mathematics to be seen there. Clearly, closer reading will help, but there will be work to do to help people understand.

Let us not beat around the bush, just as everyone knows that the current Studies course is easier (mathematically) than the SL course despite their equal weighting, surely the 'Applications' course will be easier than the 'Pure' course. As with the current structure, the courses serve different purposes. The 'Pure' course will be for mathematicians as we know them whilst the 'applied course' will be for a new kind of mathematician.

It is my belief that the net result will be more 'Mathematicians', and more engagement and understanding of mathematical ideas, concepts and applications and that can only be a good thing.

And finally

At presentations and as part of our philosophy for teaching and learning mathematics where I work, we often describe the following three facets of mathematics. (not always using the same words I might add!)

A unique area of knowledge that is built on logical foundations. Its beauty and elegance is to be appreciated and explored both for pleasure and to develop critical thinking skills.

A functional tool for survival. These skills are to be thoughtfully explored, acquired and applied.

A crucially  important way to understand the world that we live in. Mathematical literacy is essential to understanding, inquiring and pursuing the truth about the world around us.

As we try our best to make mathematics education about all of those things, it is poossible to conceive that we can have two IBDP maths courses (HL and SL) that are different blends of those ingredients suited to different students for different purposes. I think so!

We will watch with interest!



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