Math Education Should Be About Wellness, Not Success.

Last year a research article entitled “Spotlight on Math Anxiety” was published. Not much surprised me — unfortunately. However, there was one statistic that unveiled the depth — and most likely historic prevalence — of the problem.

93% of Americans reported some level of math anxiety in their lifetime.

Yes, high stakes testing and meaningless homework are two of the biggest contributors to this mathematical malaise, but there are many other factors. The biggest problem why these factors are addressed with the the seriousness and effort they deserve is that mathematics is intertwined in a most deleterious fashion with the performance culture of being successful.

Success. Who wouldn’t want to be successful in math and in life, right? The problem is that the way that word is used in both situations is related to performance that can be measured/observed. Correct answers, test scores, and grade point averages in math education. STEM jobs, salary, and title in life.

It’s all about sorting, ranking, sifting, labeling, etc. The better the marks, the better opportunities for financial gain/status.

The current message — direct or not — is that learning mathematics is about being successful in mathematics, and being successful in mathematics means being successful in life…

That narrative. That story. That is one of the unhealthiest ideas that has invaded education and metastasised over time.

In 2012, Deepak Malhotra gave a talk to the graduating class of the Harvard Business School. He reminded the class that they represent the top 1/1000th of one percent of the people in the world in terms of future wealth potential, health potential, networking, etc.

He also told them that a lot of you(the HBS graduates) will be unhappy in the years to come. I strongly suggest you watch the whole thing. I probably watched it at least a dozen times.

The title of this talk was called “Tragedy vs. Genius”. In that tragedy referred to the gap of how happy you are and how happy you should be/have been — and genius closing that delta.

He even told the audience that his goal/the Business School’s goal for them is just to be happy.

We Need To Refuse To Live in The Current Maze of Math Education

Perhaps math education can take a leaf or two from that message. Because if we truly want the happiness of our students — and our teachers — mathematics should not be making everyone unwell. In fact, ironically — to the point of it being a Shakespearean tragedy — is that mathematics can makes us well.

It can make us happy.

But, first we have to remove the agents that are causing this historic harm of anxiety and stress. Get rid of standardized testing and exams. Get rid of homework(or at least, make the homework creative). These should be non-negotiable. We seem to have the strength and conviction to call out math educators on equity issues. I rarely see that same energy devoted to tearing down the toxic infrastructure of testing.

Giving all students and teachers the same access to a quality math education starts with dismantling the industrialized ideas of education. Making micro changes isn’t helping. That would be like telling a person who broke their leg to stay off their feet and drink lots of water…

Currently, math education only aims to look after financial/career aspect of wellness. The idea of Community has started just now, but for the most part, the Social and Emotional aspects have been ignored — just ask the majority of the population.

Below are the Six Education Musts from The Progressive Educator’s Network.

For me, these principles are aligned to bringing wellness to math education. Mathematics did it for thousands of years. It is just when it got entangled with education ideas of the early 20th century, did all the beautiful and human ideas of the subject get castrated.

So, it is important to note that it is just not that millions have suffered with the bureaucratic and political administration of math education, it is that millions have not experienced the happiness, health, and well-being that mathematics can provide.

Mathematics is a gift from the universe to all of us. But, we need space and time to play with it. To muse, ponder, reflect, pause, and stop. These are actions of not only a curious mind, but a healthy one. The only reason we have long-winded debates about mastery and fact memorization is for the endgame of a career objective. Citing falling test scores is complete and colossal waste of one’s time. Those who do, have zero or little interest in the scope of mathematics beyond it being a performance sport or machinery.

They are not really interested in the well-being of children of the 21st century; they are interested in the well-being/maintenance of 20th century class models of society.

We live in such a vibrant age of math educators who are vocalizing an alignment to loving mathematics and flourishing with mathematics — Dan Finkel, Jo Boaler, Francis Su, James Tanton, and Eugenia Cheng, just to name a few.

There is much meditative and contemplative gold to be extracted from being immersed in mathematical thinking. However, little of that is is being mined right now.

Students, generally speaking, are laboriously working in mathematical coal mines of the previous century. I understand systemic change takes time. I fear that education as a curator and custodian of mathematics will be shaded into obscurity if we take too much of that time…



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