Math Education Reform: Discontinuous Light Spectrum

I have over 20 years of teaching under my belt. This includes teaching in a high needs, inner-city school in Toronto for 5 years. A school where most kids had absenteeism issues due to factors that most of us have thankfully never experienced. I also taught at an International Baccalaureate School in Switzerland. There I took a math team to The British School of Paris in 2006 for a European Maths Competition.

I have seen the entire spectrum of learners and socio-economic conditions.

I quit teaching in 2013 because I got fed up of the politics, pettiness, and privilege. Being discriminated against for my lack of institutional accreditation of mathematics, even though some teachers with math degrees had less understanding, respect, and love of the subject than myself.

My degree is not in math. I took 4 university courses in mathematics. But, the bulk of my math knowledge comes from my own personal exploration — almost daily — for over 20 years. Two decades of self-directed PD. But, they don’t give out certificates or diplomas for that…

Do they?

In the last two years of my teaching career I was relegated to courses nobody wanted to teach. Even though I loved teaching these kids, the mathematics was a poorly thought mishmash of watered down discards from higher level courses.

This was mostly due to my outspokenness against a crumbling and failing system of math education. I was clear in my hatred for standardized testing and the benign, toothless math that was being offered up there. And, how combined with politicization of data, only served to entrench the class and social structures.

In the end, most of the mathematics that I was forced teach was so boring and completely inconsequential to the interest and lives of the students I was teaching. They would have better served learning game theory for 4 years…

Since then, I have been fortunate to have written two books and acquire a speaking platform to champion the ideas of play, equity, and math history. In my rear view mirror is a wonderful week at NCSM and NCTM in San Diego, as well as a needle-pushing session at SXSWEDU in Austin.

I have observed the Twitter math universe for a few years now. My conclusion is that the spectrum of light is broken. There are those who wear the badge of disruption proudly and are calling for a complete overhaul of the system from the ground up — get rid of standardized testing, get rid of tracking, get rid of acceleration, get rid of benign ideas, get rid of the obsession with fractions culture — are we that obsessed about integers/number theory?

Anyways, I know the hill that I stand on. I never chose it because it was fashionable or going to be in vogue. I chose it because I wanted math education to be less about being in the quagmire of performance and adherence to the status quo, and more about the free, non-linear exploration of mathematics. Like those aging Vegas hotels, I side with blowing it all up and starting again.

What is the worse thing that can happen? Fail? Isn’t that what we are doing now?

I was fortunate enough to have witnessed Kris Childs’ fiery IGNITE at NCTM from the first row. He has made it loud and clear as to what the elephant in the room is regarding math education. And, fine tuning and tweaking isn’t going to change things. Deep, raw dialogue that hits the collective nerves of all of us is the only way forward. Not sure if the current system is amiable to clearing that path…

So, the spectrum of change/perspectives can be distilled down to two big bands of light: Disruption of the System and Enabling of the System. And yes, there are many people who are in the middle who are trying to mediate between the two, but the reality is that everyone acknowledges the system to be broken. Where the difference is to what degree of change is needed.

I don’t think I want to be the repair man or woman. At a certain point, you stop trying to salvage something that is broken. At a certain point, it is time to throw it away and not look back. The only revolution is a disruption. Everything else will be cosmetic and trite.

Alfred North Whitehead, who co-wrote the landmark Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell, warned of an education system that was rooted in inert ideas. And yes, even mathematics — especially if its endgame ends in testing — is going to riddled with same knowledge malaise.

In the end, we need to be judged by students leaving high school with a thirst/curiosity for mathematics. If we keep ignoring the thousands of messages/memes on social media of how much students hate math, then math education’s fate is already sealed — and that it is the Titanic in the picture above. There is a huge delta between what we need to do and what is currently being done. The good news is that the yawning gap of inequity, accessibility, meaningful assessment linked to values, more playful mathematics, etc. is wholly recognized.

The bad news is that no solution will ever be created if we have a discontinuous spectrum of beliefs. For that, the solution lies in continual dialogue and understanding of the sore spots and blinds spots in math education.

We are a product of our lives and experiences. When I started teaching 20 years ago, my plan was not to quit the classroom and put financial strain on my family. But, as is the punk ethos — “an intense obligation to one’s innermost feelings” — I had to listen to my mathematical heart.

Institutions are not sacred if they only tend to a fraction of the population with goals that are rooted in career aspirations, heavily indexed along the way with deathly inert testing. How is this helping disable white privilege entrenched in the system?

It’s not.

Time to build a better one…

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