So – I put out the call to see if there were any voices of inspiration from #mathchat for my assignment and sure enough, I was rewarded. David Wees (@davidwees) pointed me in the direction of this paper and it was more than a little unsettling.
Paul Lockhart is lamenting the state of Mathematics education world-wide which, it would seem, has no redeemable characteristics at all. It’s variably compared to painting by numbers and music without an instrument, presenting what we know as school-based mathematics as “an empty husk”.
Reading the article, I could see what he means and agreed in many places but felt it was a little over egged. I’ve explored the area of the triangle as he states it, we think about puzzles and strategies in my classroom – I try to make students appreciate the process as much as the final result. I know that isn’t the whole story, but neither I think is Lockhart’s presentation. And I’m not alone.
The new GCSE curriculum has an increased focus on “functional mathematics”. The fear of some of the maths departments I’ve been in touch with about this is palpable – just how much are the students going to be expected to do on their own? We are trying to allow our students to look at a problem and apply some of the strategies they have developed. We don’t really have a very clear concept of how this will look on a potential exam paper nor do there seem to be a lot of resources available.
Is this preparing them for the real world? I don’t know. Lockhart argues that when we make things ‘relevant’ we have a danger of making them ‘irrelevant’. For example, do kids really care about compound interest? Rather, we should be asking engaging questions and exploring mathematics for it’s own sake. I think ‘functional mathematics’ has helped me do this more in the high-stakes classes but I think I’d have done most of it anyway.
Maybe I’m being blindly naive but I think there are chinks of this shining through. In the UK there has been major curriculum reform in Maths every two or so years for the past 10. In the midst of all of that, I have been part of groups of teachers who have been passionate about engaging and enthusing their students – in teaching for understanding rather than utility – in deep and meaningful learning.
I’m going to read Lockhart again and think about it more. I think for my question – Are we teaching the right stuff? – it adds a really interesting flavour and distinctive voice. It challenges the issue to be more “Are we even teaching Mathematics?” I’m going to be taking part in a conversation on this article this next Thursday with people I’ve never met in Canada and elsewhere. Exciting!