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It’s on math teachers to change society’s attitude toward math

The two most common responses when I tell people I meet that I’m a math teacher are:

  1. People tell me how much they admire and even like math;
  2. People tell me how bad they are at math, squirm uncomfortably, and kind of sidle away.

In the second, much more common option, I seem to represent all the inadequacies they have felt about math for much of their lives. They try and fail to put on a polite face, instead looking at me as they would a particularly disgusting plate of food. It’s an occupational hazard to have these awkward moments at parties.

Both responses more or less make an assumption that I love numbers and all things numeric. But, as much as I enjoy learning about and teaching math, I don’t love numbers. I love people and ideas. For me teaching is pretty close to a perfect combining of these two: I get to talk to people about ideas. Teaching statistics, in particular, is about helping people sort through all the individual stories they know, looking for a trend or trends; students learn to organize and communicate about data, helping them make decisions in the world.

And as a teacher, the stories my students tell me about struggling with math and with education in general are often heartbreaking. Everyone has a math autobiography, too often filled with a teacher or relative who said something like “math is hard and it’s not for everyone” — a backhanded way of saying telling the student he or she doesn’t cut it. Sometimes it’s more direct (“Math is not your subject” or even “You’re not smart enough to do math.”) and usually these messages are delivered to children at ages 8, 9, or 10.

Another common narrative is of the young person who enjoys math till a certain class or till a certain teacher — frequently around 9th or 10th grade — where the student gets the message that they have “reached their math level” and anything beyond it is impenetrable for their meager talents.

There are, of course, many other stories (and I invite you to share yours in the comments) and this kind of introduction often leads people who are pro-math-and-science to exhort our society to change its attitude toward math, moving to a more math-positive message for children or to calls for increased time and emphasis on math in school. And while that would be nice, I don’t think it’s the job of society to change its attitude toward math and science. I think it’s the job of teachers to change society’s attitude.

Clearly, many people have been trying for generations to do just that, so I’m not suggesting I have all the answers or that I know what everyone should do. But I would like to share some of my experience co-creating a math course using the principles of backward design, just-in-time remediation, attention to the affective domain, and the assumptions that students are capable of high-quality work and that context is important for learning.

Three years ago, a colleague of mine and I set out to create a course that would prepare students to take college-level statistics using these principles. Unlike myself, my colleague was an experienced statistics instructor and as we talked about what to put in the preparatory course and explored the curriculum together, I constantly asked “why do we cover that topic?” and “what’s the purpose of that skill?” To her credit, she never responded that we do it that way because we always have. She never said “trust me.” She always gave me a good reason — or we tossed out that topic. The result is a course in which, unlike every other math course I have ever taken or taught, there are no extra topics; that is, in our course (“Preparation for Statistics”) every topic and every activity and every assignment are directly relevant to preparing students for the next course.

And while statistics is in general easier to contextualize than algebra, if a student does ask why we are studying a particular topic, the answer is always, in addition to any other uses, that it will be used again next semester.

This intentionality about everything we do in the class creates more buy in for students. Combine it with the assumption that students are capable of doing the work and the practice of appropriate support and we have a course that alters students’ perceptions of math (toward being more useful to them) and of themselves (toward being capable of understanding and using math).

For generations math teachers have debated amongst themselves and with others about the best ways to justify and explain the importance of mathematical education, with more and less success. Arguments about the development of problem solving and reasoning skills assume a privileged place for math that is disciplinarily arrogant and willfully ignorant (or even insulting) of the intellectual rigors in every other discipline. Discussions of the utility of skills such as factoring polynomials, solving inequalities, and calculating the volume of a frustum (much as I enjoy these topics) are unconvincing and potentially disingenuous.

It is our job to do better. And from my experience, when we do a better job of connecting what we’re doing in class to something the students want to know, the students respond with curiosity and engagement — the kind of engagement that leads to empowerment, learning, and a new attitude toward math.

And when that happens, people no longer have feel that sinking feeling inside when they see some numbers in an article they’re reading, they no longer have to cringe when they meet a math teacher, and my social life gets a little less awkward.

(*Big ups to the work of the California Acceleration Project and its founders Myra Snell and Katie Hern – my work and the assumptions it’s based on could not have happened without their leadership, intelligence, and support. Snell and Hern are among the finest educators I know.)

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