Mosquito Netting and Open Sewers

A story that’s a metaphor for course and curriculum design.

A couple of years ago I was at a math-biology workshop and during the reception, I had a great conversation with a student from Ghana. Somehow we got on the topic of how it was popular for mathematicians (mostly westerners) to study diseases that are prevalent in Africa. He then mentioned how often the solutions that are promoted are not really practical as they don’t take into account certain elements of local society. He mentioned several examples, but the one that stuck with me was the work on malaria. At that time, it was popular for some organizations to raise money to provide mosquito netting in areas that are suffering from malaria.  My colleague said that the netting helped, but there were still mosquitoes all around, and the real problem was that there was standing water in open sewers. So it would be more helpful to fix the sewer problem rather than just supply mosquito netting.

I was left with thoughts about the appropriate of some modeling approaches I had taken, but I was more struck with wondering how often we try to solve teaching/learning problems by providing the equivalent of mosquito netting when there’s a bigger problem (open sewers) that we are ignoring.

The first example I thought of was College Algebra. I’d bet that if you talked to any math department from an open or less-selective university, you’d find that the low success rate in College Algebra was a big concern, especially with recent concerns about completion rates. I’ve been to conferences where passing rates were reported at 40-50% and ‘improvements’ to 60% were considered outstanding. In most cases, efforts to improve the pass rate focus on improving the quality or quantity of instruction (e.g. moving to open computer instruction, adding hours or study sessions, etc.).  This makes some impact, but usually doesn’t really fix the problem (and can be very costly). The ‘open sewer’ in this case comes from looking at how a typical student arrives at College Algebra.  Since the course has basically the same content as Algebra 2 in high school (which is required at my school for admittance), all students have seen the material at least once. However, something happened to bring them into College Algebra. Maybe they don’t have good math study skills, or they struggled with some prerequisite math skills (e.g. fractions). Whatever the issues may be, until they are addressed no amount of improved teaching will be able to make a significant impact.

I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking of other situations in detail, but I do use this framework when something comes up, and try to make sure that we aren’t just taking the easy/popular solution, but are considering all the issues and maybe doing the unpopular work of sewer-fixing.

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