Technology Will Humanize Mathematics Before Humans

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The first science fiction movie I saw was Planet of the Apes in the early 70’s. That final scene with Charlton Heston and The Statue of Liberty was quite a memorable gut punch for a kid — Earth with humans didn’t survive. Just a few years after that, I saw Silent Running on television. To this day, that is my favorite sci-fi film. The ending gutted me more than POTA. The last of three robots left tending to the last forest left, while Joan Baez sings in the background — emotionally devastating.

Silent Running will turn 40 next year, and the movie has become, regrettably, less fiction because science/climate has retaliated against humans for wreaking industrial havoc on the planet.

The general thirst for industrialization, mass production, and generic markers to measure performance has infiltrated almost all aspects of society — food, shopping, film, television, music, and even education. The monetized driven goal to generate broad application and appeal has desensitized many of us to how dehumanizing all of this is.

Music has been one of the prime casualties — by the ludicrous and inhuman search for perfection.

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The seeking of perfection, focus on correctness, and getting a staple of mostly algorithms is not only a problem for music, but also for mathematics education, thoroughly caked in all the mundane obligations of authority and mass production — standardized testing, grades, procedures to aped/memorized, etc.

Aren’t scores/grades testimonials to wanting perfection? It’s not only an inhuman objective, but a statistically insane one as well.

The total damage of this bureaucratic obsession has been rather catastrophic on students — everything from math anxiety/trauma to gatekeeping measures rooted in racism and classism.

How bad has the problem become? So bad, that The Gates Foundation issued its first Challenge ever for US Education(the last three Challenges were focused on women’s health in Africa).

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And, in many ways, the problem in math education is a health problem. Not only are we denying so many students the joy of seeing mathematics through its magical prism of play, patterning, applications, and history, we are also creating a health crisis of mental stress of learning mathematics in such a parched, competitive, and goal-oriented environment.

Mathematics has a history of being messy and full of failure. Education has been trying to ham fist that square peg into its round hole for over a century — blithely ignoring every warning sign that this homogenization of mathematics would yield only negative results.

Mathematics has been a political football that has been punted around with considerations and calculations that have rarely been about serving mathematics.

So, I am not counting on the institution of education and the humans that occupy them to make decisions to humanize math education. No. I am going to count on good technology — and the fewer humans that work here — to create platforms that will accelerate all that is required to millions with a click, toggle, and drag of one’s mouse.

Take a look at Mathigon’s( Nine Principles below. Do an honest audit of which ones math education provides in healthy portions.

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In my opinion, 6 and 8 are being done relatively well. 1, 3 and 4 are hoped for, but really fall fairly short of any good intentions. 2, 5, 7, and 8 are mostly invisible.

Without any intervention, math education is heading towards something along the lines of a Planet of the Apes of Silent Running ending. It will end in irrelevance or obsolescence.

With the amount of damage done, with the urgency of the matter, and the moral imperatives in front of us, the humans who run math education have lost the right and capacity to alter the course.

The baton has already been passed to mavericks, trailblazers, and thinkers who work in the realm of not only technology’s present capabilities, but also its future ones as well.

If mathematics is going to be truly humanized for all — access and equity — then good, altruistic technology will be the hero here. It’s maybe not the story I would have liked written, but it will be story that will now have to be written.

Math education’s fate can only be subverted by technology at his point…

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Author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics and Co-Author of Math Recess: Playful Learning in the Age of Disruption. Speaker. Amplify and Mathigon

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