Mathematics Conferences and PD Have Become A Closed Loop of Solutions and Answers: We Need More Problems and Questions

Sunil Singh
4 min readDec 20, 2023

The entire history of mathematics is based on slow failure.

The enduring history of mathematics education wants to be fast success.

As such, the current climate of conferences and professional development is spiralling towards a plethora of solutions to abate the anxieties of teachers and administrators with regards to this addiction to…speed.

We were warned by this cult of speed over 20 years ago.

Do Everything Faster

We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been
enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.
— Futurist Manifesto, 1909

What is the very first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? Draw the curtains? Roll over to snuggle up with your partner or pillow? Spring out of bed and do ten push-ups to get the blood pumping? No, the first thing you do, the first thing everyone does, is check the time. From its perch on the bedside table, the clock gives us our bearings, telling us not only where we stand vis-à-vis the rest of the day, but also how to respond. If it’s early, I close my eyes and try to go back to sleep. If it’s late, I spring out of bed and make a beeline for the bathroom. Right from that first waking moment, the clock calls the shots. And so it goes, on through the day, as we scurry from one appointment, one deadline, to the next. Every moment is woven into a schedule, and wherever we look — the bedside table, the office canteen, the corner of the computer screen, our own wrists — the clock is ticking, tracking our progress,urging us not to fall behind.

We are doing everything in our lives by the clock. Everything. Mathematics education was never going to be immune from this deleterious affection for solutions which can be implemented faster. As such, the quality of mathematics we do has suffered. Any great mathematics problems takes time — lots of it.

But, that’s the history of mathematics. We are manufacturing a new, false, and synthetic history with low-hanging fruit mathematics that has purposes only rooted in compliance, competition, and the most constipated ideas of its value.

Rehumanzing mathematics is dead. Awe, joy, and wonder for mathematics is dead. Engagement with mathematics has been replaced by competency.

There is almost zero curiosity for the heart and soul of the subject. That’s because the heart and soul of mathematics — its collective history, thematic development, and long incubation periods for answers — has been shaded into obscurity.

One of the few mathematics educators who is trying to swing the pendulum back to a richer narrative of mathematics is Michaela Epstein(Victoria, Australia)

Our understanding of maths is constantly evolving.

I’m a child of the 90s, growing up right when Andrew Wiles was proving Fermat’s Last Theorem in 1993 — and opening up wondrous new mathematical possibilities for the world.

So often though, we present maths as:

* a fixed and finalised body of knowledge,
* a ladder of skills to be dutifully attained,
* information that’s there to be doled out and unquestionably consumed.

Yet, maths is full of ongoing discovery.

In current mathematics education, there is no past, present, or future. We are still mired in trying to make a meal out of teaching fractions in elementary grades, essentially nullifying the “Romance” period of learning.

Romance? Mathematics is speed dating in 2023.

All of this is unsustainable — especially for students. They have historically hated math and we have historically accepted this as some sort of weird tax on learning the subject. And, yet we somehow promote “everyone is a math person”?

I don’t want to be a fractions person. I don’t want to be a trig transformations person. I don’t want to be trinomial factoring person.

Mathematics is far, far, far, far, far more beautiful beyond the nuts and bolts section of Home Depot.

But, that’s what is being sold. The quick turn of a wrench, the tightening of nut, etc.

We need new ideas. We need new questions. We need new problems.

We need all this to change mathematics education back to a deeper appreciation of mathematics. We need to make the cult of quick fixes and solutions to shallow mathematical questions obsolete.

We also need to this slowly…