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Ontario, Leave Calculus Alone
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

I wanted to stay away from this topic because I am not an educator, but I cannot ignore it for I am a concerned father.

I am talking about the proposed change to Ontario's high-school Calculus: according to the "the Ontario government is studying a proposal to change the current calculus high-school curriculum and scrap certain sections."

I think we all know that our world has changed in ways unimaginable twenty years ago: communism is a vestige of the past (who would have thought it?); the proliferation of the internet has opened an immense global market, where anyone (buyer or seller) can tap into; we can easily communicate with anyone around the world with zero time delays. We need to face the fact that we live in an economy of services that requires, more and more, the mind to succeed and not brute force. Then why, I wonder, would anyone want to cripple our children by diminishing their ability to learn advanced Mathematics?

We should join David Johnston, the University of Waterloo's President, by writing directly to Gerard Kennedy, the Minister of Education, expressing our concerns in regards to this proposal.

I, for one, ask Mr. Kennedy not to take away Calculus or dumb it down to a level of uselessness because, I'll say it bluntly, we will be relegating a whole segment of our society to menial jobs of the future--Canada cannot and will not be able to compete or contribute in a global economy without professional mathematicians, scientist, or engineers.

I argue that this proposed change will put our country at a great disadvantage, compared to developing economies such as China and India. It is not an exaggeration to think that such a small change in the current high-school curriculum could lead to such a disastrous outcome, specially when the intention is to make average students' life easier by removing "hard stuff" from the classroom, thus, presumably, making most students acquire a stronger basis in other subjects. But what about the curious students sitting in a classroom that caters to the lower common denominator? Why would these students want to pursue advanced degrees requiring higher Mathematics, when all they are being taught are variations of simple algebra?

A curious mind needs to hear and be taught that Calculus has put human beings on the moon; that we can calculate the age of our Planet because we can use Calculus to find decaying rates of carbon in organic matter; we need to explain that a train leaving Toronto to Vancouver has a velocity that is related to distance and time, and that its acceleration is neatly tied in with the changes of rates that lead directly into the same Calculus that Newton and Leibniz, separately, invented four centuries ago.

The education of our youth is the key to Canada's prosperity and the key to forge the leaders of a better tomorrow. Instead of letting the world catch up to our achievements, we should set the bar higher to challenge our high-school students; instead of simplifying the curriculum, we should make it harder and more interesting, accompanied with better training for our teachers; we need to make our classrooms smaller and instill in the students to achieve greatness academically, which will lead them to live better lives; we should try to keep our high school students interested longer so that all graduate with high school diplomas and have the desire to pursue post-secondary educations.

We have a problem, indeed, but it is not what has surfaced as falling graduation rates, which is only a symptom of a bigger problem. Instead of forcing student to stay in school in order to get driver licenses, we should figure out why they are dropping out--perhaps school is too boring, or we are not emphasizing why an education in the twenty-first century is so important. Once we have a solution to the real problem, our job then becomes a matter of motivation and proper training, not hand holding or deception by telling our children that giving up will be good for their future, and that because Calculus is "hard" we will make it easier for them.

If it were only that simple. Simplifying the Mathematics curriculum will hurt Ontario more than anyone expects. These type of changes have a compounding effect and removing calculus from the curriculum will probably not have an effect within five years of the change, but we will see it being a big problem twenty, fifty, or one hundred years from now. These are exponential rates of change we are talking about here, unfortunately and ironically, if the curriculum is simplified, the children that will be affected the most will not even understand what that means.

We must prepare the new generations to face one of the main challenges--and opportunities, for that matter--in a world without boundaries. Something we call outsourcing and off shoring, and that we, Canadians, view only as manufacturing jobs moving to countries with cheaper manual labour. However, we need to rethink what outsourcing in the new millennium really means. Thomas Friedman, in his book The World is Flat, writes, "A lot of the jobs that are starting to go abroad today are very high-end research jobs, because not only is the talent abroad cheaper, but a lot of it is as educated as American workers--or even more so [hardly a stretch to compare US and Canada in terms of educational levels]."

We cannot compete with China and India in terms of student populations or their number of graduates: the number of top students graduating from technical Universities in a population of 1.3 billion boggles the mind. Compare that to the number of Canadian students graduating from our Universities in a population of 32 million.

Now, imagine this proposal of simplifying high-school Mathematics being approved and ask ourselves if the change will prepare our student to study in our top Universities and, most importantly, how would we compare to these countries where education has become the number one priority for their survival and rapid economical growth. It is a numbers game which we will loose if we do not think ahead. There are hundreds of millions of children around the world who will want better lives and interesting jobs. Some of these interesting jobs will be coming their way, thanks to the outsourcing argued by Friedman. We cannot expect our children to work and collaborate with the rest of the world as equals if we do not provide them with the tools necessary to understand the complexities of a changing world without borders.

In the end, our job as parents is to protect our children and make their developing years easier. However, crippling their aspirations by simplifying high-school Mathematics is not the answer. On the contrary, simplifying these kids' lives now will only hurt them in the future. It is indeed a scary thought that one day Indian or Chinese CEOs will want to outsource menial jobs to Ontario because it will cheaper and our children will not have other type of expertise but manual labour because we told them that Calculus was hard.

What should be next? Take addition and multiplication out the primary schools because it is too hard for the students? I think we are grossly underestimating our young students.

I certainly hope that Gabriel, my son, gets to learn Calculus while attending high-school, not because it will be useful in his every day life (Calculus is not really useful when crossing the street, for example), but because his mind will want to learn where these complex ideas came from and how they are applied in real application such as sending probes into space, how solving differential equation allow cars to go over bridges and how planes are able to generate enough lift to fly for hours at a time.

I think this type of change should be put to a vote and let everyone affected decide if it is beneficial for Canada or not--perhaps a "leave Calculus alone" referendum is in order...

10:51 AM | 4 comment(s) |


Right on Jose!

And write on too!
By Blogger CJ, at 2:53 AM

Nicely said Jose! Would you consider posting this to my CALCULUS MATH TALK web blog at
You will find a great deal of background information on what our group has done to delay the implementation by one year. The petition and David Johnston's comments are included. We have an ongoing discussion on the documents as well.
cheers, rich

i've been googling this topic because it has upset me so...I've gone through engineering and realise the necessity of calculus and the maths...I will write the Minister of Education and sign any petition, thanks for the site
By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:30 AM

There's another petition that was just started.
By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:53 PM

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