Monday, May 23, 2011

What We (Must) Do

(This is a brief missive that I wrote a while back, when I was trying to make sense of what it was math teachers actually do as opposed to what we should do.  It's idealist, as most such missives/rants/whatever are, but there are some ideas in there that I thought I'd throw out to the rest of the world.  What do you think?)

We are the ones who must create narratives for mathematics in teaching.  And the need for such narratives begins as soon as a teacher has a responsibility for a student.  High school, middle school are too late.  The students need to know a mathematical narrative exists and is meaningful the moment they walk into a school.

We are the ones who have to develop the stories that will engage our students and that will attempt to answer their questions about how the world is.  We will not always succeed.  We will be heartened by the simple observation that life’s meaningful moments are not always found while succeeding, but in striving. 

To be honest with our students is paramount.  We should always be able to answer a thoughtfully-posed question, or be honest in saying that we do not know the answer.  The students are smart, and they know when we dissimulate.

We should have, as a goal, to never hear the question “why are we learning this?” again.  No one asks why we learn to read.  The same should be true for basic mathematics.  Once students go beyond the basics, they should learn what their natural interests require of them.  The job of a mathematics teacher, once a student achieves basic mathematical fluency, should be to shine light on where mathematics lives in the world, and to point the curious student in the direction that they wish to go.  And then to stand aside.

The teachers, the engineers, the musicians, the artists, the scientists – all of us need to demonstrate – not EXPLAIN – how the quantitative complements the qualitative; the reasons that knowing why is as important as knowing how.  Or what.  Or when.  Or who.

If all of this means to scrap the existing mathematical curriculum, then so be it.
If all of this means to walk away, damning the consequences, from the ridiculous idea of “one-size-fits-all” testing, then so be it.
If all of this means to think critically about what we teach, and why, and when, and how, then so be it.
If all of this means to subvert the dominant paradigm, then so be it.

We must justify our existence as teachers of mathematics – or society will justify it for us.  Or not.


  1. I am so very, very glad you're starting this conversation! I've written up a post inspired by this that'll go up on the 30th, so thanks for that, too!

    Here's the bit most directly relevant to your post:

    I can't tell you how to fix education. But I can tell you what I needed: I needed teachers who loved the subject. I needed less teaching to the test and a lot more exploration. I needed strong foundations built. I needed the who and the what and the when and the where and the why. I needed teachers who demonstrated what math was good for, and the astonishing things it could reveal, and how art and music and myth and fiction and science and engineering and politics and just about everything else used math, could be inspired by it, could be given power and potential by it. I needed to be shown how math tied in to other subjects. I didn't need it walled off from everything else, as if it was a noble gas that refused to react with anything else. I needed to see it as something every bit as dramatic and exciting as a great story (which it can tell), and as uplifting and inspiring as a song (which it can be). I needed to make friends with numbers. I needed to understand you don't have to be born good at math in order to become good at it. And I needed to know it was beautiful.

    I hope that bit helps the conversation along. It's one we desperately need!

  2. Dana,

    Thank you very much! I agree with your points, and I am absolutely stealing the "noble gas" metaphor :) As a high school math teacher, I often feel like not only am I competing for the "hearts and minds" of my students with so many other things, but that the competition itself is intrinsically unfair - because so many of them have already been turned off to the subject. If this blog provides a forum for people to discuss how to get beauty back into math ed, then it'll have served its purpose.