Math Education: Moral Obligation To Make Students Happy

The title of this blog to should send the back-to-basics/Research Ed people screaming out in the streets, affirming all their fears that edugurus like myself are drunk on some leftist/Marxist ideology and are on a mission to hijack math education. And, of course, rob of its rigor, content, etc. and replace it with TEDxesque notions of kumbaya humanity.((stretches arms and yawns))

As agent provocateur, that was one of my goals — to have a title that would wind them up tighter than a Gordian knot and induce hysteria/panic on their side. I can see the headlines in their Twitter feeds: Math educator wants to ditch times tables for happiness…

(side note: has anyone told these folks that times tables don’t stop at 12 x 12)

But, the main goal was to create a title that, ironically, was deadly serious as to the direction math education has to move towards for the future.

Happiness? Seriously. Isn’t that kind of low-hanging fruit — and fruit which isn’t really part of the mathematical orchard? I know. Right now, you might be thinking that maybe this goal is really, really stretching the domain of even the most progressive ideas of math education.

It is not.

Back in 2013, a few months before I contemplated quitting teaching(I actually did in June of that year), a former student — who herself quit a six-figure job that she was trained for — sent me a talk by Deepak Malhotra, a professor at the Harvard Business School. The talk was given to the 2012 MBA graduates.

I encourage you to watch the whole thing at some point this year. After doing so, I am positive that you will watch it again…and again. I think have watched the whole things more than a dozen times.

There is a bounty of wisdom in this 45 minute talk. Germane to this blog are the following:

Tragedy is the delta between how how happy you are and how happy you should have been. Genius is closing that gap.

You the audience(Harvard MBA graduates) represent the top 0.001% of wealth, health, networking, etc. potential in the world. We also know that many of you will be unhappy. How would you convey that to someone who lives in a war-torn country where food and shelter are in scarce supply?

Soon after mentioning these things — specifically the 5:29 mark of the talk — he answers the question “What We(The Business School) Wants From All of You”. It’s not to be great leaders. It’s not to be great decision-makers. It’s not to be ethical in jobs. It has nothing to do with the things that the students were explicitly taught during the two years at one of the most prestigious business schools in the world.

The goal? Happiness. Let that sink in for a while. At the zenith of formal education lies a goal that seems ridiculously asynchronous to the professional mission/aspirations of a high-level manager, often entrusted with complex decisions involving millions of dollars. Happiness? That’s not the job of a business school.

It’s not. But, as Malhotra so passionately explores, it should be. And, math education would be wise to take a leaf out of his book, and weave that endgame into its content/pedagogy.

It should also be a goal of math education.

Mental health. Bullying. Having Friends. Loneliness. Anxiety. Stress. Racism.

Many of our students will encounter one or more of these negative attributes of growing up/school. It will infect everything they do. You might wonder why your creative explanation of multiplying fractions is going awry, but as great and wonderful your intentions are, they will fail to penetrate the unhappiness that resides in some of your students.

Happiness is at such a premium now in our society. We are overwhelmed by our technological connections and underwhelmed by our human connections. Too often, the most important things that students might need is a squeeze of their hand, a gentle hug, or just a softer set of eyes upon their face.

Mathematics, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, has generally induced a fair bit of anxiety in students, parents, and even some teachers. Learning it an environment that champions testing, correctness, speed, and performance only exacerbates the situation…

Stop. We are going in the wrong direction completely. We are neglecting the happiness of our children and we are neglecting the higher purpose of learning mathematics — that mathematics is for Human Flourishing.

We need to align our teaching practices and our professional practices with the high bar for math education that Francis Su has set. It not only makes good pedagogical sense, but it gives the best chance of ensuring that the mathematics that we teach and explore with our students will always be tempered by the main goal of wanting all our students — regardless of their backgrounds/behavior/dispositions — to be happy.

I know that a sizeable chunk of all of this is motivated by own children. But I also know that the rest is motivated by how I want our children to learn, play, and dance with mathematics.

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