No this story is not about him…nor his mates…but about Maths.
Early in 2018, a colleague on the East Coast of the US (Sue Looney @looneymath) tweeted out this message: “What ONE word is your ed focus for 2018? I haven’t chosen yet but JOY, EQUITY, or WONDER are all in contention.” This set off a small dervish of replies. The replies reflect each of these tweeples ideas about what they see as important foci for the coming year in education. My reply went something like this: “Without context my single word might cause some consternation but here it is, “Revolution.” The time is ripe for it in math education.”
I say that the time is ripe because I see so many factors coming together in this era. Personalities, technologies, societal issues, all seem to be melding for the much needed changes in mathematics education. First let me state that in this piece I will be speaking largely from a Western Centric perspective. I know too little of what is happening in Asia and the Middle East to comment.
If you are in the math education world I wonder if you too have sensed a growing angst regarding the content of what constitutes school mathematics. Here in the US we have adopted a set of curriculum standards we call the Common Core. Setting aside the political storm around them, the contents represent a significant first for the US. It is the first time a set of standards has so elevated the teaching of mathematical practices (mindsets, habits of mind, dispositions) to prominence. For emphasis, the Core standards place these eight practices at the beginning of the document, and at the beginning of every new chapter, year, or course delineated. By sheer repetition the authors have said, “These eight, this band of habits (not hobbits), these are the ideas we take as preeminent. Pay them heed.” I say, this was just the first shot in the revolution, what is roiling under the surface is far broader, more exciting, and fundamental.
There is a collection of movements around the math teaching/doing world that seem to be pointing at a shift towards what may seem to be both heretical, and yet oh so necessary. These movements have different facial expressions…but yet the smiles they elicit emanate from a place of deep joy and excitement. I am speaking of the movement towards learning mathematics for Joy, Happiness, and Freedom.
Whether you are reading Sunil Singh’s: Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics; or David Stipp’s: A Most Elegant Equation: Euler’s Formula & the Beauty of Mathematics; or Paul Lockhart’s: A Mathematician’s Lament, there are literally dozens of recent releases that encompass a growing sense among mathematics aficionados that mathematics has been shown in its worst possible light for the past century or so…and it is time for a revolution…
If you look to mathematical education content critics like James Tanton, Paul Lockhart, Conrad Wolfram or Wu, you see or read them talking about a math curriculum that removes the human elements of mathematics. The joy of learning has been removed from mathematics they claim, and few arguments can be mustered against those claims. It is as if you can hear them saying, “Look, I did not decide to put all my passion aside, and study a lifeless, soulless, non-creative set of machine rules! Mathematics sparked curiosity, pleasure, passion, and yes JOY and Creativity in me. Let’s show this to children, and not bury the good stuff behind mindless stuff.”
I record an audio podcast called the ZPC Podcast and I have recorded with some of these folks and I can tell you there is an infectiousness about this call for revolution. I would recommend two episodes in fact that highlight this idea. My most recent recording Episode 79 with Karen Wotton who is an author for the CPM mathematics curriculum. We talk about her vision for an “Intervention Course” in which the focus is upon Joyful mathematics! Imagine that JOY as a named outcome of a math curriculum. The other episode is one in which Dr. James Tanton joins me in the studio
Normally my podcast format has me interviewing a guest who tells the listeners about a piece of research or methodology for teaching math that they have been focusing on. This time however, James turns the tables on me and interviews me. We end up discussing what it was that attracted us to math, what it was that has kept us interested in it despite its bad name in society. It is a rollicking fun chat.
When you look outside of the field of mathematics too, you see people doing and using math(s) in creative and powerful ways, ways that they probably did not learn in school. The Bridges Math Art conference, and the growing movement in both Europe and North America towards STEAM among other movements are taking mathematics from outside school textbooks and turning it into beautiful and integrated concepts. The work of Leslie Love Stone and Henry Segerman are not the same, not even remotely; but they both incorporate an aesthetic that is uniquely mathematical within their art.
Lastly, technology is driving a shift in what we can, and therefore ought to be doing in the mathematical classroom, NOW! The ubiquitous nature of smartphones, apps that can do almost everything that is taught through secondary mathematics curricula in the US, and inexpensive connected computing devices are rapidly making the teaching of mindless and soulless mathematics obsolete. When all that I teach a child can be done by a machine that fits in the palm of their hand…it is time for me to teach something MORE, watch that Ted talk by Conrad Wolfram from 2012, and tell me he isn’t compelling. Fortunately we humans have constructed something more…
There is a confluence occurring, where humans, the technology we invent, the quests we set for ourselves, and the fundamental questions of our time are blending together. Mathematics, when taught with big ideas in mind and details kept in their appropriate place, can express our thoughts and dreams of reality in ways we never suspected. Join the revolution, seek to find those big ideas and teach mathematics that students hunger to understand.