BERLIN, GERMANY – A teacher explains mathematics during a lesson with pupils (sixth graders), who … [+]
Math education has valiantly served as education’s reluctant plus-one at the curriculum table for decades. Math teachers today are products of the system that has traditionally recoiled at the notion that change is needed to support advancements in mathematics education.
The advent of artificial intelligence, coding and computational thinking has brought the academic subject of math to the head of the table inviting new ideas and approaches that aim to update our relationship with the historically mundane nature of the discipline.
This reporter wanted to survey the math landscape to gauge the level of talk from the pulpit of higher education to the experiences students have in classrooms and the impact of Covid-19 on the subject.
I spent time exploring topics that included discourse, equity, innovation, and the role of math in advancing the world around us with noted professors, educators, and authors. Some may have been more bullish than others, but all are passionate about the role math plays in their respective lives and the impact math education can have to equitably engage the minds of students across the globe.
The Math(s) Issue
Conrad Wolfram, of the famed Wolfram Alpha, noted for his mathematical mind and business acumen provides the industry with ambassador-like notes steeped more in the reality and industry-side challenges than in any romanticized notion of ones and zeros.
Wolfram believes math struggles to exist in both the business and education worlds as it is currently configured and that a fundamental shift is needed. “The business of math is a very, very big business. And it’s mostly about getting people to pass assessments for the purposes of gaining acceptance into institutions,” commented Wolfram.
“I like to think that there is a much grander role for math and education, a transformation we desperately need. We are currently forcing the world’s population to interact and engage with the subject of math, only in schools. That approach and way of thinking further disconnects the discipline from the outside world.”
Educators and those who have advanced to industry leadership positions face similar challenges from within the classroom.
In the midst of the unending fog of Covid-19, educational systems continue to search for familiar patterns (pre-pandemic teaching and learning practices and outcomes) while facing new challenges and expectations of students and teachers.
NWEA (formerly known as Northwest Evaluation Association) conducted a study examining the impact the pandemic has had on math education. 2020 test scores for approximately 4.4 million children (grades 3-8) found they fell behind 5-10% compared to the prior year.
To stop the slow academic bleed some in the industry look to life outside of the classroom to make substantial gains beyond the result of a given assessment.
Dr. Trena Wilkerson, President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and Professor of Mathematics Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the School of Education at Baylor University is focused on connecting the principles of math to real-world applications to drive and sustain student interest.
“The industry (researchers, teachers, innovators) needs to think in terms of broadening the purpose of learning mathematics inside of school and throughout a young person’s life, outside of the classroom. With that approach, we [the industry] reveal a path forward for a student to build upon, to be able to critique the world around them. Further, this mindset allows for the inclusion of statistical reasoning, data literacy and data science – the necessary building blocks for the careers of the present and future.
Wilkerson continued, “It [mathematics] is so much more than a set of quadratic formula equations. We need to come together as an entire education community to help our students and our future leaders of the world better understand how mathematics is real in their lives.”
These connections are paramount, educators believe, if a deep-rooted change is to take place for math education.
David Vaccaro, Director of Learning and Innovation at the prestigious Wycombe Abbey school in England, believes there’s been a disconnect between what students experience in the classroom and the career possibilities that lie outside of school.
“Students struggle to see the mathematics that they’re engaging within school is in any way related to the real world. This virtual chasm separates students from the power of math and the relationship it has on the very professions these young people will want to occupy.”
Vaccaro’s passion comes from an academic life steeped in the discipline borne from his days studying mathematics at Kings College, Cambridge and at the University of Oxford before converting knowledge into practice as an educator.
A Teacher’s Role
It has become increasingly difficult to qualify the variables impacting a given academic subject’s ability to engage learners over time and with fidelity. Dr. Rachel Lambert, a former classroom teacher, special education teacher, and current assistant professor in the Gervitz Graduate School of Education at the University of California Santa Barbara has studied the intersection of disability and mathematics education for several years.
Lambert’s findings bring to light the role mathematics education plays in shaping disability and our larger understanding of the subject as it relates to perceptions of self. Lambert discovered that students in a classroom that encouraged discussion and multiple strategies, for example, saw themselves as competent learners of mathematics because they were able to ask questions, persist in solving problems and present multiple strategies.
Dr. Emille Lawrence, Term Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of San Francisco reflects on her role and responsibility as a math educator at the university level.
“My job and that of many educators is to teach students how to think logically, using reasoning skills, making deductions, and creating solid arguments. If I am successful then they can take those skills into whatever their chosen field happens to be. They don’t have to be mathematicians to use those skills out in the community and world around them.”
Mirroring real-world professional experiences and exchanges with colleagues indicates a potential opportunity to make strides in the ongoing professional development of math educators.
“Teachers need curriculum and professional development because so many teachers are onboarded with the math that they themselves didn’t like as kids. Yet, they want to make a change, a shift to a new experience of the discipline. I think we finally have the systems, curriculum, discourse, and books that are necessary to help them make that shift happen in their classrooms,” stated Lambert.
Lambert continued, “If teachers just ask students what’s working for them, what’s not, and how they can change math class so it feels really enjoyable, engaging, challenging, and puzzling in all the best ways, we really can revolutionize it.”
Wilkerson believes that this revolution requires additional players on the proverbial field of play to make substantive change a reality. “It takes an entire community to move this forward. One piece is mathematics teacher education, another is mathematics teachers, and the third is parents and families. We need our communities, policymakers, and industry to participate – we are all in this together.
A concerted effort to understand how students learn and the necessary inputs to create longstanding ‘stickiness’ will require a different and more thorough approach to student input. Lambert contends, “If we are going to witness change, we need to integrate student input that examines what students need to feel purposeful, engaged, and willing to take risks in math class.”
Tenets of Real-World Modeling
Math education has historically struggled to create seamless transitions between grade levels and school levels, leaving K12 and higher education on opposite ends of the spectrum. While K12 math departments focused on consistency, building on the shoulders of previous generations’ best practices, university math departments focused on research.
There appears to be a decline in the classic separation of church and state as more and more researchers are coming from the classroom and asking questions that can impact the entire spectrum.
Dr. David Eisenbud, professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley and Director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute adds, “Math could be brought into classrooms and shown to have a relationship to the world around us, which I think would help students appreciate it and want to learn it in a more meaningful manner.”
Eisenbud talks about the role, modeling plays in research and the application to ascertaining a contextualized understanding of math in ones’ daily life.
“Modeling means you take something in the outside world and try to interpret it in mathematics – a very open-ended kind of thing. There is no right model. No model is correct, ever, but you want one that gives you enough of the features of the real world to be useful in our attempt at a greater and deeper level of understanding.”
Lawrence extends Eisenbud’s perspective on modeling and applies professional modeling to address and support her student’s understanding of what math looks like and where it resides in their everyday lives.
“Math is sort of bubbling under the surface of many things, but I think students struggle to recognize it as math. They see math as solving for ‘x.’ That’s where they’ve seen it in the classroom. But where I think there is an opportunity to grow is in reframing the conversation. One should say to the student, ‘Hey, did you know that what you’re doing is completely connected to math? These are mathematical ideas and you’re actually doing this cool thing from algebra that you may have learned about a year or two ago?”
This familiar journey, for many, was illuminated by Lawrence and fellow mathematicians as they chronicled the experiences students encountered with math through the years. Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey expands the conversation to include the impact math can have on a sense of self.
Wolfram believes the reframe comes in the form of a blueprint rich with connections to meaningful applications of the discipline to advance the world around us. Wolfram’s premise is that we are all students constantly learning from the environments we inhabit. This frame underscores his edict that a fix is possible for mathematics’ next chapter, but a complete rebrand may be necessary.
Wolfram’s latest book, The Math(s) Fix: An Education Blueprint for the AI Age challenges the conventional wisdom that math is meeting the needs of the world and contends that an entirely new domain should supplant math as we know it. A direction focused on critical and computational thinking and rooted in problem solving for 21st century challenges.
“If you think of math as a process, we’re spending huge amounts of effort on processes that our machines can so fantastically do better than humans these days. What we actually need is a much higher level of understanding to give humans the edge in the age of artificial intelligence (AI).
Wolfram closes, “We want humans in charge, not computers, but we want to work with computers and manage them to produce the best results and best decisions.”
The discussion, at the academic table, appears to be expanding beyond ones and zeros with a focus on impact and relevance at the institutional, student and teacher levels.
Can a core academic subject reinvent its value proposition in time to equitably impact generations of learners? According to the experts, a healthy dose of active discourse centered on experience and real-world problem solving just might be the fix.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.