What’s the big idea?: Replace high-school geometry with entrepreneurship


Mathematics teacher Melanie Wilson, right hand, helps 8th-grader Vanessa Kidd, 13, lower hand, to understand algebra during math class at Spring International Middle School in Silverspring, MD. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
October 24, 2011

Marty Nemko, holds a Ph.D. specializing in the evaluation of innovation from the University of California, Berkeley and subsequently taught in its graduate school. This is the first in a series on thinking outside of the box when it comes to the nation’s leading challenges.

People on both sides of the aisle agree that the best way to create new, permanent jobs is to create more (and ethical) entrepreneurs. Here’s one way to create them: Replace one high school course with a course in entrepreneurship.

In entre­pre­neur­ship class, students would learn how to identify unmet societal needs in the for- and nonprofit sectors, create a business plan, and include online and in-person guided simulations of running a business. Each class would start an actual business during the second semester, such as a peer-tutoring business. These days, “competition” is a dirty word among some leading educators. For example, Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition asserts that competition “turns all of us into losers.” But I believe that, with little liability, great learning would accrue from dividing the class into two groups to see which group can create a more profitable business while retaining scrupulous ethics.

If a student is not destined to become an entrepreneur, the course may still help them become an intrapreneur — someone able to create jobs within an organization. In either case, students would be better empowered to create new products and services — not to mention new jobs.

Compare the net benefit of a course in entrepreneurship to the student and society against the net benefit of the long-required year of geometry. The Common Core Math Standards is a showcase of the arcana geometry teachers are required to teach. Take, for example, this definition of transformations: “Transformations (rigid motions followed by dilations) define similarity in the same way that rigid motions define congruence.”

There’s a limit to what students will learn in high school. Is it more important that all high school graduates be taught rarely-used esoterica rather than lessons in how to identify an unmet societal need, develop a practical plan to fill it, and the art and science of how to successfully and ethically implement that plan?

The most commonly offered defense of requiring a year of geometry in high school is that it teaches thinking skills. No less than Plato believed that so strongly that he had “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter” engraved over the entrance to the The Academy. But I have yet to be presented with evidence that teaching thinking skills in an abstract context such as geometry yields better real-world thinking skills than if taught in a real-world context, such as in a course in entrepreneurship, personal finance, or conflict resolution.

I acknowledge that geometry is needed for careers such as engineering and carpentry. However, the percentage of the geometry course that will be used even by engineers and carpenters is relatively small and likely to be forgotten by the time that knowledge is needed. Larry Leonard, Principal Consulting Engineer at LSL Consulting went further: “In my 20 years as an engineer for Chevron and Conoco-Phillips, I never used geometry. A course in entrepreneurship would have been far more valuable.”

Isn’t it better to learn what we need when we need it, just-in-time, rather than as part of a four-year marathon of Algebra, Geometry, Advanced Algebra, Trigonometry, and Pre-Calculus? In college, aspiring mathematicians and geometricians have ample opportunity to study all the geometry they can stomach.

There’s also the pragmatic argument: Students must take Geometry to get into college. That is true, and they also must take such subjects as chemistry and foreign language, but couldn’t students benefit more from a year of entrepreneurship? How many of us can engage in substantial conversation with a native speaker of a language we were exposed to solely through classroom teaching? Can anyone legitimately deny that replacing that year of geometry, chemistry, or the third or fourth year of foreign language with a year of entrepreneurship education would be more beneficial to our students and, in turn, to society, in thinking skills and in additional jobs created?

That’s especially likely in that many more students will be more motivated to learn entrepreneurship than the derivations of geometric theorems.

The Obstacle

The question is: “Why have we continued the elitist practice of requiring high-schoolers to learn so much soon-to-be-forgotten esoterica while leaving them without crucial life skills?” As a former university faculty member, it’s ironic for me to say so, but the core obstructionist is the professoriate.

The high school curriculum decisionmakers, including textbook companies, get intimidated by experts — the professors, who want as many students as possible prepared for their arcana-larded courses. Alas, professors’ love for their discipline blinds them to the more circumspect question that should undergird the decision of what to require of high school students: Isn’t there something more important that all high school graduates need know than, for example, “Derive the formula A = 1/2 ab sin(C) for the area of a triangle by drawing an auxiliary line from a vertex perpendicular to the opposite side?”

I challenge all curriculum decisionmakers to apply that rule to deciding what should be required of all students: “Is there something more important that all high school graduates should know?” I’m confident that, if this question were answered honestly, entrepreneurship would soon replace geometry.

But what do you think: Should high school geometry be replaced with a course in entrepreneurship?

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