Saturday, February 23, 2013

Harvest Collegiate is a Pretty Awesome Place

Stephen Lazar is on my must-read list. Last semester he taught a course called "Looking for an Argument" at the new Harvest Collegiate High School.

By his description, it sounds like it was an amazing course:
At Harvest, Looking for an Argument gives a government credit, and all 9th graders take it during the year. The structure is relatively simple. Each week focuses on a different controversial issue. Ours’ ranged from the NYC Soda Tax to the presidential election to Stop and Frisk. The week starts with two teachers debating the issue. The students choose who has which side, establishing that the class is not about being right, but rather about constructing the best possible argument.
And here's why it worked:
 Part of the genius of the course is its simplicity. While provocative topics keep the students engaged week to week, students are practicing only four core academic skills — note-taking, reading with annotation, self-reflection, and timed argumentative writing — over and over again. While students do gain a tremendous amount of knowledge about the world through a variety of topics, that knowledge is never assessed; it’s all about the skills.
Harvest Collegiate does the "one-semester themed courses" in all subjects, including math and science. They have their course list posted online, and the three courses listed for math in the spring semester are:

  • Algebra
  • Global Youth Trends
  • Designing Harvest City
In the course descriptions you get the sense that they're struggling to make these things work with the state standards, which must be an immense challenge. I'd imagine it's the largest impediment to the school experimenting with anything as radically skills-based as the "Looking for an Argument" course.

Which is a shame. I bet that there are all sorts of amazing courses we could design for kids if we had a bit more freedom. I know that Henri Picciotto has designed a whole smattering of math electives. In Brooklyn, Saint Ann's school offers all sorts of stuff, including Mathematical Art. 

Let your imagination go wild: if you were allowed to spend a course focusing exclusively on mathematical skills, what would it look like? Would you spend each day solving different problems? Teach a subject that's normally left for college?

My quick list of dream-courses looks something like this:
  • Paradox, Self-Reference and Philosophy of Math
  • Prime Numbers
  • Biology and Math
All of which are pretty blatant attempts on my part to imagine if I could try out my most positive mathematical experiences on students.

I'd love to hear what you've got in mind.


  1. I'd love to teach one on probability, including things like expected value and Bayes' Theorem, but have it focus on gambling--cards, dice, etc. Talk about the business of casinos, talk about what makes a table game a good one (from both the players' perspective AND the casinos'), and eventually have them develop their own game, which they would then have to deal at a Casino Night event of some sort.

    Oh man... some day...

  2. I'd love to teach a class called "Quantifying the World" that explores the various fields, methods, and limitations of converting the human experience into numbers. We could troll Google trends and WolframAlpha, learn statistics, and debate the role of the "quants" in the 2008 collapse of the housing market.