Building Thinking Classrooms: Math Education’s Monorail

Sunil Singh
7 min readJun 4, 2024

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Alternative Title: Building Marketable Classrooms

Even thought I just published my criticism of NCTM’s recent position on Culturally Responsive Mathematics — which really was Culturally Responsive Instruction — I thought I would roll this one out as well. It’s been sitting in draft for the longest time.

And like the NCTM blog, I fully expect I am going to be in the minority here. The problem is, mathematics education isn’t exactly a fertile ground for it to okay to be in the minority.

I remember my first day at Teacher’s College at the University of Toronto in 1992. I got their early for my class — just so I could get the corner seat in the last row.

That’s where I sat — or tried to sit — in most of my classes when I went to school.

Building Thinking Classrooms. I want to sit at the back row also. It feels like Teacher’s College. So much unnecessary — dehumanizing — i dotting and t crossing of every move. I was never going to be the average teacher — primarily because I came from a punk background/ethos through music.

My 2019 SXSW Presentation

That’s okay, I’ve been a minority in almost every single space I have been in for my entire life. Not too many South Asian males in math education. Even less in the area of heavy rock music. And yet, I have championed both through a common lens.

Content.

The cult of edu celebrities in mathematics education must take some blame here for killing content and raising the curtain on sound-bite mathematics, and branding mathematics through overbaked pedagogy.

Just an fyi, one of the worst things you could call me is an edu-celebrity. I follow close to 5000 people, post videos of panda bears tumbling around on Twitter, and basically give exactly zero fucks about venturing into controversial topics. I also slept on a basement couch for six years until last October. Edu celebrities follow a small amount of people, rarely promote/engage with their followers — unless it about them — and make unconscionable bank, rarely drifting from their high speaking/PD fees.

I once did a one hour virtual PD for math staff of six people in a small, rural high school in Kingsport, Tennessee for $125. I’ve also spent half a day in poor district for free — when I was poor.

I am sure I could have been richer if I stuck to finding space in the overcrowded “meat and potatoes” market of PD. But, I would have hated myself.

Mathematics has been hijacked by the jackals of efficiency, procedure, and inert solutions to inert problems. It’s a carnival/flea market for wannabe edu celebrities to sell their Tupperware mathematics — which will eventually contain expired cheese.

Mathematics is dead. That’s all I have been basically writing about in various ways for the last 5 years. But, it’s time I stop trying to be clever about the titles of my blogs.

Weekend at Mathematics With Education: V

In my keynote in Wisconsin, I shared an image of Pingala’s/Yang Hui’s/Omar Khayam’s/Tartaglia’s/Pascal’s Triangle that shows the expansion into infinite geometric series with negative exponents. I can’t even Google it to find such knowledge. I had to take a picture from the textbook I learned it from — when I went to high school.

Mathematics is just fuckin’ dead. There are no longer conversations about mathematics.

The awe and wonder of it. The humanity of it. The stories of it. The nuanced beauty of it. The quality of it. The aesthetic of it. It’s become an understudy in its own bloody play — which once used to be a captivating musical. Now it’s a procedural drama, lacking characters and story.

Do you know what mathematics has been reduced to in the universe of BTC?

Tasks. Let’s look up that word.

Don’t assign them tasks…

I am sure many of the problems and ideas in his new book are wonderful — it’s the labeling of them that is my concern. It is rapidly shrinking the scope and beauty of mathematics to efficient, morsel-sized pieces that need to be consumed that day.

When my son was interested in mathematics, he once asked me if there was “negative infinity”? That question doesn’t fit in a task box.

Horribly Inefficient Thinking

This is the barren world of mathematics that Building Thinking Classrooms rules — where an inert writing surface is more important than what goes on it. The Classification of Students is aligned to the stripping down of mathematics. I took a screenshot of an earlier blog I was writing.

Mimicking. There is some Shakespearean irony right there. BTC is mimicking mathematics. Get kids walking around, writing and talking. Have those verbs — all good ones — replace prioritizing what kind of mathematics they are actually doing. It’s only a matter of time that the mobility and the discussions desired become faddish.

Where’s the mathematics?

I was given an opportunity to review Building Thinking Classrooms before it came out. I declined because I was really busy at the time. But, I did glance at it to see if there was enough interest for me to squeeze it in somewhere — as the title sounded intriguing.

For me, however, that quick glance failed to locate any focus on mathematics. It also sounded like the kind of book I would have had to read in Teacher’s College — where there is religious fixation and fascination with labeling and codifying every move and gesture of a teacher.

I hated Teacher’s College. It felt like they were trying to rescue teaching in some sterilized operating room and implant it with artificial organs that made teaching more science than art.

More science than art. I’ll say it again. More science than art.

That was over 30 years ago. And, where the fuck are we now?

In the “Science” of everything where even politics/government have weighed with legislation to ensure everything in learning is codification — it’s become it’s own religion. Sadly, Bertrand Russell saw it all coming down close to 100 years ago. I just wrote about it a few months ago.

That cult is no longer some annoying friction to the light-heartedness of learning. That cult is an insatiable beast, swallowing up all the resources and energy of school districts all around North America — perhaps even the world.

Math conferences have become events that benefit edu-celebrities and friends of organizations the most — and urban students of color the least. That delta has only grown. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer.

It is not ironic that mathematics has also gone downhill in this divide.

A great mathematics teacher doesn’t need BTC. However, if they use it, they will amplify what they are doing in the classroom — because they have prioritized mathematics. That’s the best case scenario.

The worst case scenario is that BTC becomes worksheets on the whiteboard. If you don’t have a whiteboard, then an erasable surface like Wipebook.

Which gets to some structural equity issues with BTC — not every school has white board on all four walls with manageable class sizes. Which gets us to equity. Where is BTC booming? In affluent, urban, white suburbs.

When I was sleeping on my basement couch, I was volunteering a whole day of my time at a Juvenile detention centre in San Jose. So seeing PD — that emphasizes a whiteboard — that is promoted with such exclusivity of wealth and access runs counter in every possible way of what I thought this space was about.

It was once about that. It’s not anymore. The rise of fame/fortune is directly proportional to the fall of mathematics.

$1900 cost(not including 5-star hotel) for each of the 60 people

Sad reality is that the biggest issue for mathematics education is ensuring everyone gets to ride the Monorail, and district/schools are bleeding their budgets to make sure that they are “not left behind”.

While I alone wrote this article, I conferred with some people that many of you might know, who said similar things. One person called it Snake Oil.

I am sure I will lose many “friends” over this article. They will be all white. It’s time to be alerted to the madness.

It’s time to mourn the death of mathematics. It’s probably never coming back the way I have written and spoken about for the last ten years.

I think it’s time to build something better.

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