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Why Math Education Needs To Change

Author: Scolab | Publish on May 15, 2019

Change. It happens all the time. Sometimes change is for the good, and sometimes it is not. Regardless, change affects us all.

Just the changes of the last two decades in technology and social media have changed our lives irreversibly.

Those that can react to change, adapt to change, and embrace change, tend to be fleet of foot, not burdened by the weight of tradition and institutionalization

Education is one of those large vessels that requires enormous energy–and time–to change from its entrenched habits, objectives, and goals. All of which, generally speaking, are anchored to 20th century models–themselves born from the industrial revolution of the previous century.

Change is long overdue.

And while fear of obsolescence can drive change, that is a reactive kind of change, and rarely produces change that is revolutionary and satisfying for emboldening the human spirit.

Math education, always held in high regard, has been probably the most scrutinized subject in terms of change this century. Dealing with the aforementioned societal changes and its own internal reflections, math education is trying to change in a direction that galvanizes its mission for learning mathematics.

What is the purpose of learning mathematics? The answer to this question will guide math education’s direction and design for, in all likelihood, the rest of the century. What we know so far, is that the portal for change must go through the door of equity, ensuring that all students have access to all mathematics. This is a massive undertaking, but it is a necessary corrective measure to ensure that students are not being steered into learning paths based on socio-economic demographics and/or preconceived abilities.

Math education needs to change to merge with equity–equity in the deepest sense. Dave Martin, who is the President of MCATA(Mathematics Council of The Alberta Teachers Association) has posted this on social media many times. He has now turned it into a workshop.

Cheryl Cantin, who is the Regional Director for Canada at NCSM(National Council of the Supervisors of Mathematics) wrote about her special needs son in her Winter Report. She reminded all of us that the the ideas of equity must have its radius extended to accommodate truly everyone. This deep sense of equity has now become a predominant theme at every major math conference in North America.

The fact that that the widest ideas of equity are being passionately communicated by key math leaders from all over North America, indicates that we have begun the journey to change the trajectory of math education that will be the most inclusive and impacting.

For this one reason alone, math education must change. It must be aware of its elitist history that marginalized so many learners and, frankly, turned off so many people from mathematics.

We need to try new ideas, explore new mandates, and create new and bolder directions to support the emergent ideas of equity.

Math education, however, has to change for reasons that go beyond just surviving the tsunami of change that it finds itself in. Math education needs to change because the purpose for learning mathematics is much higher than the traditional ones rooted in practicality and functionality–now packaged off as STEM careers.

There is perhaps no better place to look for inspiration as to what the vector for math education should be going forward than the inspiring vision of Francis Su, who gave the closing keynote at NCTM 2018 in Washington.

If we as a math community agree that mathematics is for human flourishing–for all–then we as a math community have a moral imperative to answer that question unabashedly with courage and vigor.

If there can be a second critical pillar to join equity in this math revolution, then it must be the idea of “PLAY”. Unfortunately, we are living in a time where freeplay of children has been decreasing steadily from past generations. Students have less recess time and less time to be with their peers/friends without adult supervision. Which means they have less time to build resilience and curiosity about the world–two key attributes in developing healthy ideas about learning mathematics.

Play in mathematics has become even more important now in classrooms, as the general state of it in our society atrophies. We must rise to the bar that Francis Su has set for all of us–and it begins with play.

Change in math education should not be a goal. Change in math education will be an outcome of our goals. Goals which are driven by rehumanizing mathematics and ensuring that the power of learning mathematics is accessible to all.

In the end, the question for change comes down to addressing math education’s obligation for students to become “lifetime thinkers of mathematics”. Whether this is a possibility or not is besides the point.

The point is to keep moving in this direction, advocating for the highest purposes of learning mathematics, and hope for the best. That is what we are capable of and that is what we must do.

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