You Really Want To Humanize Math Education? Build A New Ship

Sunil Singh
5 min readJun 24, 2018

7 years ago, I did something I thought was unimaginable when I started teaching in 1994 — I quit. In 2017, Canada’s largest newspaper let me tell an abbreviated version of that story.

Looking back at that decision and that story, I realized that the bottom-line of my decision was based on the deep belief that mathematics that I was forced to teach in school and hence, forced to test, was completely devoid of any humanity.

The list below is the minimum standard for humanizing mathematics. It’s not also what we bring to the table, its what we discard from the table — the wholly deleterious performance culture of K to 12 mathematics.

Photo courtesy of Allison Papaleo and Stefanie Livers

Most of my teaching career was in a sterilized vacuum, where implementing ideas like the ones above were challenging and really a test for echo. And, while I applaud the list above for highlighting so many required ideas to make mathematics more human, it doesn’t address the pink elephant in the room which contributes to why math education is not human — testing.

Until you get rid of testing and evaluation — negative cousins of assessment (which is critical to student learning)— mathematics will never be human. Testing, always paired with speed, another buzzkill for humanizing mathematics, only exists to label, sort, and repeat. Kind of like shampoo, rinse, and repeat. Testing also doesn’t care about statistical validity. It just wants to data. It’s a form of control. To control education and to control mathematics. It is then sold in accountability jars to anyone who cares for such things — administrators, politicians, and naive parents.

Testing also limits the creativity and rigor that can be taught. Most good math questions I gave my senior high school math students had deadline dates of at least a week, sometimes a month. What kind of questions can you ask on 20 minute quizzes or 2 hour exams? Simple content and/or questions that have been done to death during the year. I call that pedagogically lazy and philosophically bland. What tastes better? Homemade pies sold at a Farmer’s Markets or those sold by the thousands by some large company? I also want to purchase from the person who created the pie with their ideas of baking,etc.

But, math education has never been about humanity — even though that has been the real narrative of mathematics for thousands of years. The humanness of mathematics has been almost surgically excised, leaving only a body of work to be picked over, rummaged through, and artificially assembled without coherence and historical context.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the standard K-12 math curriculum which, outside of calculus and statistics, peaks around 9th century India — of course without ever mentioning that. Considering that a bulk of mathematics is taught through a eurocentric lens, that just seems ridiculously ironic, if not tragically laughable.

But, math education has never really been about personalizing the story of mathematics outside of margin-sized, black-and-white photos of mostly white, male mathematicians.

Mathematics in schools is about performance, usually in on-demand forms like exams and standardized tests — kind of like a seal spinning a ball on its nose, but without the fun of spinning a ball on your nose.

There is one new idea for humanizing mathematics that came to me via my affirming and buoyant conversation with Berkeley Everett, who will be going back to California next year to start a K to 5 Math Specialist position in Los Angeles.

In our one hour conversation, which unintentionally flowed in and out of making mathematics a most human endeavor, Berkeley said something which I had NEVER thought about. I mean I have brushed up against what he said with ideas that we shouldn’t try to get students good at math — more like inspire them. He took it one step further. He said our society turns every hobby, past time, and interest, into a competition and full-blown immersion for the purposes of full-blown mastery. Collectively, we asked, “why does everything, including math, need so much demand to be an expert?”.

Why can’t people just dabble in mathematics, siphoning off all cliched expectations and inert standardization?

Berkeley’s background is a classical/jazz pianist. That’s right, like me, he doesn’t come from a math background. To which he added, we need these two elements in math education: curiosity and vulnerability.

Speaking of music, last week I came across a wonderful, little video documenting the musical collaboration between Nancy Wilson(Heart) and Eric Tessmer — two of my favorite guitarists/musicians. All the musicians are sitting loosely in circle, creatively discussion ideas about putting song together. There’s no wrong ideas. It’s just a free-thought, brainstorming session, infused with an obvious love for music. In parts of the video, Nancy Wilson laments current technological modalities in song construction, which allow for artists to not even be in the same room. Towards the end, she really taps into the humanness of making music.

Math is no different. Yet.

This is the essence of how music was created — before it started losing its humanity. Brian Eno even says the music itself, wrongly seeking perfection, has lost its humanity.

Circling back to curiosity and vulnerability. Are not these two of the highest qualities to be human? But, math education will never reform itself without these allusions of humanness.

If it does, it will be an illusion.

If we are in the throes of rehumanizing, rethinking, and rebuilding math education, then what we are asking — but not asking with enough directness and conviction — is that we need to let this anachronistic model of a curriculum of cheap, mathematical scraps that derives its inflated currency from standardized tests, sink to the bottom.

If you are going to use the word “disruptive” in math education, then you sure as hell better be not signing up for some diluted definition to be co-opted and sold to keep the ship afloat. We already have too much off that.

Eight years ago, Dan Meyer said “Math Class Needs A Makeover”. What he really was saying, to me at least, that “Math Education Needs A Do-Over”.

To be truly serious about humanizing mathematics means to start from understanding that, wanting that, and slowly constructing that…however long it takes.

So, that maybe one day, we just sit in circles, openly discussion math problems, sharing strategies, going off tangent once in a while, and making sure that the identity of each student is known and valued.