Math Education Has Hit Its Iceberg: Institutionalized Embrace of Pedagogy and Institutionalized Disregard for Mathematics
Yes. It’s a long title. But, it also completely encapsulates a problem of an insidious vector change in math education over 25 years ago — focusing less and less on mathematics — that made this intellectual collapse sadly inevitable.
Mathematics is dead. Its interlaced connection to history, philosophy, music, the arts, and current endeavours is dead. In spite of its influence transcending every race, civilization, culture, and hunter-gatherer tribe over thousands of years, it seems like its resting distillate is a salty brine of overhyped delivery models, bureaucratic compliance, and now not so subtle nods to white supremacy.
Don’t believe me. Just look at social media. Just look at edu celebrities. Just look at many conferences. Try to find mathematical content — specifically, the unquenchable thirst for it. Which, historically, has crossed all social conditions and barriers — concentration camps, incarceration, death beds, suicidal ideation, racism, and sexism.
When I spent a whole day at Osborne Juvenile Detention Centre this past August, the students weren’t smiling because we walked to white boards(because there were none). They smiled because they cracked the binary code of guessing correct birth dates by only pointing to cards in which the birth date appeared.
Disregarding mathematics and championing inert ideas around teacher-facing and teacher soothing practices has created an anti-intellectual vacuum where people who don’t even like math or have an interest in it, can confidently chime in to its problems and solutions — politicians, journalists, and even right-wing extremist groups pounding their pitchforks demanding a return to times tables and, I guess Roman numerals.
It might have been a little funny in 2019. In 2023, it’s 100% sad.
Math education needs to be blamed — not teachers and not students. The fact that most people don’t even know that our everyday numbers, sitting on the second row of every laptop have an origin that is not Western is a tragically true barometer of the general ignorance of the thematic and historical development of mathematics.
But, the problem is deeper. The monumental story of the introduction of these numbers to West(Europe) is, for all intents and purposes, absent in math education.(Note: Fibonacci needs more credit for the importance of this book. He needs less credit for “those numbers”, as they were discovered by Hemachandra, a Sanskrit poet, more than a century earlier).
You are a teenager hanging out in the port city of Bugia in Algeria in the late 12th century, accompanying your father, Guglielmo Bonaccio, on his regular business.
You happen to be at the right place at the right time, as not only as their is lots of tradable goods coming into the ports, but — an unbeknownst to him — an incredible wealth of mathematics.
Namely, the Hindu-Arabic numeral system and the scholarly algebra work that was going on in the Arabic world. This number system, specifically, was far more advantageous for doing calculations — which for all the people who were involved in commerce and trade, necessitated trips to people specialized in calculations.
Liber Abaci, not only changed the way of how calculations were done, the book became an unsuspecting catalyst to modernizing Europe in terms of trade and commerce.
Mathematics being dead isn’t an exaggeration or an opinion — it’s only been crickets anytime I say this — it’s a fact. The reason why nobody is overly concerned because it has become profitable to water down math education to accessible procedures, moves, and instructions that are scalable due to their homogeneous nature.
What’s actually on the white board is less relevant than the board itself. We are walking towards the board because of the board and not what is on it.
Content is dead. Long live pedagogy.
Next week, I will continue my work with a local district in Ontario, the Province I live in
Mark Sonneman, the principal who invited me last year to work with his district — and who has sat with his teachers the whole time in my previous two sessions — wrote this reflection about the negative effects of pedagogical focus this past summer. Oh, and Mark’s background is in English/Literature.
Do you think pedagogy was created as a way to ‘enable’ teaching without a familiarity with content? Seriously — wondering if pedagogy was an institutional response to the collective unease of both teachers and society in having to teach on topics they know little about. Pedagogy, in this way, does not require experience or interest. I would imagine that someone thought this would make things more equitable. All students get the same ‘pattern’ of instruction. Strange that this would come parallel to a movement around equity that showed how ‘sameness is not fairness’. On one hand, this reduced the anxiety teachers would have — in elementary this anxiety is usually cantered on math and science. On the other hand, this approach reduced engagement and exploration — making the subjects essentially transactional. In secondary, I wonder if pedagogy allowed teachers to build higher walls between themselves and students? This is how it must be taught and the scope and sequence of things. Teachers were confident and well-defended behind these ramparts. Pedagogy allows for summative judgements that are not subjective but based on unassailable logic. The result of privileging pedagogy has been boredom and shallow learning in elementary and anxiety and avoidance in secondary.
And, keeping this blog in real time. This morning he sent me this message.
Introduced Al-Khwarizmi to the grade 2’s yesterday. We are reflecting on why he was important. Started with images and no explanation. A crater on the moon (named after him), a map he created of the ancient world, an equation. Also a picture of a book that used to live in the House of Wisdom and some ancient architecture. Simple questions. Where are we? Why is this person important? What do we know about him@and where he lived? We are going to write a shared story of our ideas and I will tell them a little bit of the ‘real’ story each time.
Pair with what Mark Sonnemon is doing and the depressing poll numbers around Arabic(Hindu-Arabic) numerals.
If we can’t even get basic numbers right, then should we be shocked at the state of math education? There is no past. There is no present. There is no future. Mathematics has no personality in math education. It’s inert as hell, and as mathematician, philosopher, educator, and writer Alfred North Whitehead said almost 100 years ago, it’s dangerous.
Numbers are not inert. Education made them that. Numbers have personality, quirks, whimsy, and even mischievousness.
Look at the lower left hand corner of this wonderful sketch note(Peter Morey) of the brilliant reflections by Alex Bellos(author of The Grapes of Math). Playful. Wonder. Knowledge. Cultures.
Curiosity for content is the portal to all of this. Compliance for pedagogy is the dead end to all of this.
Luckily, I got out long time ago. Others are also jumping ship, or at least, want to. It’s time to build something better, something more student/child-facing that resonates with the magic, power, and beauty of mathematics.
In 2024, with the help of others around the world, we are going to start to build that model. A small clue as to where it will all start is in the picture below…