No subject in k-12 schools generates as much concern as does mathematics.
Parents and government officials confuse arithmetic and mathematics, ignoring the rich diversity of the maths. They focus on an inability of many students to “make change” in their head, citing this as a clear sign of our schools failing our students. They ignore that in a cashless world almost no-one needs this skill, and that many adults trained in “back-to-basics” also can’t “make change”. Financial advisers and bankers fret that our youth graduate school with little understanding of compound interest, mortgages, and margin purchases of stocks (even though few other-wise intelligent well-educated adults understand these concepts either).
Controversies swirl around strength and short-comings of different pedagogies (Discovery, Jump, table memorization, 1960’s “new math”). Teacher math-anxiety and lack of knowledge seems to be an ever-present topic. And we forever hearing politicians and pundits, actors and athletes, singers and celebrities state that “Math is hard”, “I can’t do math”, “Math is uncool”. (Friends and family say this too.)
More than any other subject (with the possible exception of spelling) math classes seem obsessed with “getting the right answer”, which means that most students are forever hearing “That’s wrong” or getting a big red “X” on their tests. Few classes hardly ever highlight the creative and playful side of the maths. With this sort of experience, it is no surprise that so many students grow into adults who dismiss outright the insight into the world that geometry, algebra, calculus, statistics, symbolic logic, algorithms, fractals, group theory, and other branches of the maths can provide.
By turning most of the population away from maths, our schools have diminished our society’s ability to think critically. Important public policy debates involving taxation, economic development, safety, health, and the environment become hostage to people and organizations making dubious, or even fact-free, assertions.
But fortunately there are innovations in mathematics instruction that can prevent and even completely undo a child’s belief that “math’s not my thing”. All of these innovations start with three basic beliefs:
- that the maths can provide powerful insights into the way that the world works
- that the maths are as creative as any of the arts
- that mastering a math is not much different than mastering an art (be it playing the cello, composing poetry, or designing a dress) or a sport or a language; all require focus, effort, and a willingness to repeatedly make mistakes and learn from them.
- UofToronto Fields Institute – MathEd Forum video archives
- National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (US)
- Ontario Association for Mathematics Education
- Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators (US)
- Association of Teachers of Mathematics (UK)
- Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers