Mathematics Education Is A Fearful Echo Chamber of Compliance: It’s Time For A New Model

Sunil Singh
4 min readMay 19, 2024

I turn 60 on May 27. Statistically speaking, I have been in the space of mathematics education longer than most of you. I was told, in the most unvarnished ways, by my mentor Peter Harrison that mathematics was dead.

That was over 20 years ago.

I think I had a great impact on students in my classroom, but eventually, the system of control and compliance leaked into them around 2013. That’s when I quit to protect my own mental health. The whole story, and that of my daughter’s own battle with anxiety and depression is an article that just came out yesterday in a new Canadian Wellness Education magazine.

In fact, Raya and I spoke at a Mental Health Summit this past Friday(the same folks who launched this magazine). Being a part of this event and listening to so many amazing speakers focus on mental health/wellness was an inflection point for how I want to proceed in the world of mathematics education.

While I am proud of my three books on the beauty and wellness potential of mathematics and the countless presentations, workshops, and keynotes I have done, I haven’t moved the needle — to the point of systemic classroom change.

I am a person of colour focusing on content. The needle movers are white educators pushing bite-sized pedagogy — which sells.

Nothing sums up the sad state of education than this reflection by my kindred spirit Mark Sonneman, a principal of a middle school in my Province of Ontario.

We have ‘jumped the shark’ in terms of rigidity and conformity. We have supplanted creativity with compliance. We have distilled the connection between learners and between teachers and learners down to an algorithm. There is little belief in or understanding of the alchemy of passion, relationship, trust, curiosity, and play that lies at the heart of our work as educators. There is an art, dare I say a certain magic to great teaching. Consequently, there is a beauty and organic nature to the learning that comes out of a great classroom culture that (I believe) defies easy description or mass duplication. We have lost our way it seems, because the path of learning needs to be straight to satisfy our current masters — and we all know that there are many crooked paths and dead-ends before we reach the most secret and sacred places.

Another administer I know, who started her first year as VP, distilled down her role into, lamentably, this: harm reduction

Mathematics education operates — and has operated — in a vacuum. It makes changes to pedagogy without considering the larger system of harm that comes in the way of incessant testing, archaic homework and grading practices, etc.

There is a global crisis in student absences — and teachers as well(who can blame them) — that is now leading to school refusal.

Melbourne University
USA Today

Let me repeat. Mathematics education is in an echo chamber of conversations dominated by edu-celebrities offering solutions that are fully ignorant of the negative climate of education as a whole. It’s like the band on the Titanic. Only thing difference, that band knew the ship was sinking.

Either math education doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Both are problematic.

Up until a recent while, I had lost faith that mathematics education was ever going to actually talk about mathematics AND be fully aware of the larger sphere of malaise that education has been infected by.

That was until I met and spoke to Cathy Williams and Kevin Moore of The Number Lab in Austin.

My faith in mathematics and education(I purposely separated them) has been restored. In fact I will be going down there in June to participate in their annual [co]Lab. There will be some exciting partnership to announce thereafter.

This is a slide they have created. It clearly demarcates the predominant theme in mathematics education(on the left). While math conferences try to push the needle towards the right, it’s not bearing any fruit because the larger conditions are too overwhelming.

The Science of ________ movements and less and less conversations about actual mathematics is going to make it impossible for mathematics education to rescue mathematics and students from the harm of the bureaucracy and politics of education.

Anyways, I am off in this direction with mathematics.It’s for my own good and self-care. Slow mathematics. Let’s make it a thing in 2024.

Let’s build it.

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