Six Questions That Math Educators Need To Answer Honestly

Honesty: Pull Up A Seat

I taught long enough to realize that education’s primary mandates are financial and political — they have been unspoken cornerstones for guiding curriculum since money and power found their way into education.

That may not have been the opening sentence you were expecting, but if I didn’t point to the controlling climate of education — which often just sits like a slumbering, pink elephant — then asking to be honest about the following questions would be akin to reflecting in a the vacuum of an ivory tower.

Honesty — the deep, down-to-the-bone kind — tends to need some kind of earthy cocktail of time and space. Quiet vistas at dawn or dusk are truth serums for even the most closed souls.

It is 2018. Math educators need to take a seat and reflect deeply and thoughtfully about what math education was, is, and needs to be for the 21st century.

Homework, an antiquated holdover from the last century, is on life support.

Assessment is under the microscope and is collapsing under its own bloated weight. New and more sensible ideas are already on the horizon, pointing to grade-less learning environments.

And, while we are being frank, the questions below are going to be addressing more math education — not mathematics. Mathematics is not up for debate. It is what it is, and it has been tattooed in so many civilizations and cultures for many millennia. Its purpose and mandates, might run parallel to math education at times, but in reality, they operate on a higher plane of truth, justice, beauty, play and love — the qualities that embody a flourishing life that Francis Su addressed in early 2017.

Math education is a very young child of mathematics . If I am being honest— a spoiled and rotten child. Lockhart called this out over a decade ago. Back then, maybe it was a test for echo. Today it is a clarion for the revolution that is already afoot.

If I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done-I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.
Paul Lockhart

I wish every math educator would just read the words above and nothing else. He might as well have written that in blood. I mean soul-crushing. It doesn’t get more devastatingly close to the truth than that.

Math education has “gotten away” with being a servant to expectations/goals that are far removed those that were eloquently said by Francis Su for various reasons — none which are particularly interesting or need any devotion of time. Standardized testing being of particular disinterest…

However, this is 2018. Everything is transparent. Everything is up for meaningful debate. Nothing is sacred — including calling out math education for deforming the ideas of mathematics to satisfy agendas that rarely have the best interests of children.

Best interests usually do not lie within the radius of the classroom.

I would love for you to answer these questions with responses of your own. I will offer mine, as personal as possible, ensuring they do not speak for anyone but myself.

  1. What is Mathematics?

If I would have answered this question before I began my teaching career, I would have been provided some cliched, stock answer revolving around its importance to many disciplines like science, engineering, economics, etc. — basically it being some practical workhorse. Now? Well, since I wrote a book about it, it is simply about happiness. Finding sporadic moments of bliss learning something new and wonderful about mathematics. Just playing with numbers, puzzles, brain teasers, conundrums, algebraic ideas, etc — mucking around in the sandbox of math. The more I know, the less I know. The less I know, paradoxically, the better I feel about my ideas about mathematics.

2. Where Should We Learn Mathematics?

Everywhere. And, by “everywhere”, I mean not just looking for mathematics in our daily lives — grocery store prices, geometric shapes in buildings, etc. No. What I mean is to simply discuss mathematics like we discuss any other topic freely and in confluence with other simple pleasures of life. I will sometimes ask random number theory stuff to my kids — ie)what do you think are the prime numbers between 100 and 110 — as they are taking satisfying licks of their ice cream cone. Positive association:) Mathematics needs to permeate our discussions to create awe and wonder with our family and friends. Beach, Brunch or at the Bar. Mathematical thinking/reflection needs to get some sand between its toes, eat French toast, and have a cocktail or three…

3. Should Mathematics Be A Compulsory Subject?

Curriculum: The Narrow Path For Learning

Absolutely not. Even in a redesigned curriculum, I think mathematics should be an optional course after Grade 8. If we cannot convince students of the shattering magnificence of math after 8 years, students have the right to terminate their learning. Those that have an interest in “art” or require more rigorous mathematics, will continue with math. Now before there is some audible hue and cry from traditionalists about getting kids as much math as possible — kind of like stuffing a turkey — maybe they should ask for what purpose? These same high school kids who sweat and toil over antiquated polynomial juggling and factoring frustration are doing nothing to ward off the mathematical predators of insurance companies, extended warranty providers and lotteries that will siphon out dollars from their pockets — for the rest of their lives.

Oh, you say even doing math like this helps in problem solving. Agreed. But, just cut to the bloody chase and have problem solving that has way more teeth /intrinsic motivation — chess, GO, zero-sum games, etc. We need to install real decision-making mathematics. Otherwise we are selling snake oil to disenfranchised customers. How’s that working out for everyone?

4. How Should We Learn Mathematics?

One of the most drastic improvements over the last decade has been the pedagogy around mathematics. And while there has been some friction with the fringe “back-to-basics” groups, how we teach mathematics has been spiralling towards play, deep inquiry, and open exploration. And — this is critical — such learning should not be compartmentalised into just elementary math education. High school needs to take the baton and pose challenging problems that invite the same ideas. Ironically, none of this should technically be foreign. This has been the natural narrative of how mathematics has been developed from the beginning. Explore. Play. Stumble. Fall. Repeat.

5. Who Should Learn Mathematics?

Going to die on this hill. Not only should everyone learn math for the same reasons — cue up some Francis Su — but we need to ensure access to quality math learning environments/resources for ALL. I often offer my time for free in schools that have limited budgets. I wish more would do this. However, I realize this is a band-aid solution. We need more equitable distribution of ideas/workshops/etc., so that all students and teachers can benefit — not just the ones that can afford it. I have a dream of starting a math consulting company that works kind of like Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen — pay what you can afford. Who’s interested?:)

6. What Is The (New?) Purpose of Math Education

There is a glass ceiling here. I say we, a la the Wonkavator, smash right through it. Math education will never live up to the ideas/hopes/visions that mathematics has repeatedly romanticized and humanized for thousands of years. I am not naive. However, maybe we can start from scratch. Instead of trying to renovate an old Vegas hotel, I say we blow it all up and build something that resonates, reflects and rejoices with the way that so many of us feel about mathematics. Daniel Torres-Rangel and I have started a Fantasy K to 12 Math Curriculum Google document. The response to contribute and comment has been overwhelming.

The planets are lining up.

I will be presenting Social Media, Global Connectedness and the Collapse of Trust Institutions: Creating a Global Curriculum With Decision-Making Mathematics at NCSM in Washington this coming April. The workshop will be given under the Strand Leading Mathematics Into The Future.

Mathematics is, at bottom, about truth. It is high time we honor that deeply embedded quality in math education.

We don’t need answers right at this moment. But, we sure as hell need some tough questions that challenge the deepest ideas we have about education, learning — and ourselves.

Take a breath. Dig Deep. Be bloody honest.