The Future of Math Education’s Hidden Strength: Doubt
As many of us know, equity — with all its difficult conversations — has rightfully become the number one idea in mathematics education.
But, it didn’t get here without doubting and questioning every nook and cranny of the institutionalized ideas of mathematics. In the process, some unpleasant and uncomfortable discussions — long needed — regarding barriers in math education were excavated. And, being deeply entrenched in the systemic roots, there was a lot of energy, resolve, and courage required to lift them into the broad consciousness of math educators.
We are not done. Not by a long shot. But, the awareness that this is a long climb is well understood. At least, I hope so. And, it is also well understood that some of these conversations will need to continue to find safe and welcoming spaces for them to continue to reveal the wounds of the system.
These stories are still being told, and probably won’t end any time soon.
One of the greatest ironies is that mathematics, at its core, relies heavily on a foundation of doubt. So, this self-examination of our collective practices, biases, and neglect, is something that has been come to us by our own pursuit of mathematics.
In Dan Finkel’s now legendary TED Talk, the idea of doubt and where it leads is brought up early. Just before Dan launches into his Number one idea for revolutionizing math classrooms — Start With a Question — he referenced Descartes.
What is a Thinking Thing?
It is the thing that doubts, understands, and conceives, that affirms and denies, wills and refuses, that imagines also, and perceives.
The ongoing equity illuminations have had their journeys go through everyone of these markers of mathematical thinking. No shortcuts. No simple conversations. No simple reflections. And, most importantly, no simple solutions.
But, there are blind spots. When most people think of equity/diversity, they limit the ideas to the physical appearances or social traits. So, all the wonderful energy of doubting tends to be funneled towards that.
Equity has deeper layers that are hidden well beneath these observable or known ones.
I am brown of South Asian decent. I have had my share of feeling racism in my life. But, and I am unsure as to why this is, I have never identified myself through the color of my skin or even my East Indian heritage. Maybe because I have always had a belief that identity should come from one’s heart and mind. This is not to say that POC, especially those who are black, should anyway minimize their historical and current pain that is tied to the color of their skin. I am just saying that we should also look at “colors” of discrimination and identity that lie deeper.
Equity and diversity must also be safe harbors for ideas in math education that are unconventional, challenging, and yes, even uncomfortable.
Kris Childs, who gave a riveting IGNITE at NCTM 2019, shared this slide in his presentation.
While this is thankfully no longer a representation of major conferences like NCSM and NCTM, there is still some ways to go to address the deeper ideas of equity that are more abstract. Back in 2018, Chris Shore took up my challenge about who traditionally gets to speak about what. That POC have been historically given the task of talking about equity and those who are white have been afforded the luxury to speak about content/pedagogy. However, POC have had no choice in this matter, as white educators, for the most part, were not taking enough initiative in discussing the matter with the depth and candor that it deserved. However, to be fair, not talking about it was not intentional, it is just that they could not discuss what they were perhaps not experiencing.
But, what they were experiencing is something that was achingly obvious to POC — that white privilege was leading to different outcomes and realities inside and outside the classroom.
For the last few years, I have said it is not enough to just have visible representation at conferences.
There has to purposeful movement towards more equitable sharing of math ideas that span the spectrum of improvement.
But, in order to make headway there, we also have to start using our intellectual power of doubt in examining the shortcomings of pedagogy and content that lie throughout the K to 12 curriculum. And, yielding to a superficial analysis, will not only be insufficient, it will most likely fail to uncover blind spots in the larger sphere of equity in math education.
We all know standardized testing is a waste of time, only enabling equity problems and the performance culture of math education. Time to start knocking down the doors of politicians and policy makers.
We should also know that the current pedagogy — while wonderful — is supportive of the current system/content. Just like we can do better when it comes to issues in equity, we sure as hell can do better when it come to redesigning curriculum. Where is the math history? Where the holy trinity of theories — number, game, and graph? Where is a deeper dive into mathematical expectation, utility, and probability that uncovers the deception in insurance, warranties, and government lotteries — an eyesore of an irony if there ever was one.
And, then there is…play. Along with equity, it is the hottest idea in math education. But, I am not sure if the deepest ideas of play, and what constitutes play has permeated math education. At my both my NCSM and NCTM presentations, I shared the criteria for play by Dr. Peter Gray.
I would say that almost nowhere in math classes is the first criteria attended to in any consistent manner.
I am sorry. But, unless you change the structure of the system — away from a perverse testing — throwing in “play” is not going to have any meaningful adhesion. Today we are going to play with math and tomorrow there will be a timed-test seem like odd bedfellows to me.
We have to start doubting everything, not just our abilities in delivering equitable curriculum — but just everything we are doing and not doing. We have no right to say that the overall content structure of the general K to 12 curriculum in North America is the best. Maybe best for some adults who are benefiting from the system, but definitely not for the thousands of kids who develop math anxiety before the age of 10 and exit the system with unchecked scars of boredom and disdain.
Doubt. The moral imperative of changing math education with the deepest and most everlasting changes begins right there. And, if there is no room to doubt in the arenas of content/curriculum, then all the work in equity will be punctuated with the most visible irony and hypocrisy.