The definition of a “math person”

It has been awhile since I have posted here. My new responsibilities as the math department chair have taken up quite a bit of my time – but I am certainly relishing the opportunity to put into practice many of the ideas I have espoused here on GodandMath over the years. One of my responsibilities has been hosting a series of math talks for parents. This has been a great way for me to meet more families in our school community and to have a platform to explain our department’s philosophy of math education. This post is a summary of that philosophy that I have been sharing with parents.

Our department’s number one aim is to cultivate the mathematical affections of students – a phrase I have written about numerous times here. Essentially, the aim is to provide students a meaningful experience of mathematics that solidifies their appreciation of the discipline regardless of their future studies or career trajectories. This goal is in contrast to the prevailing attitude of society towards their mathematics education, summed up in the phrase “I’m not a math person.”

I start these parent meetings by asking who in the audience has ever said or thought “I’m not a math person”? I then ask for a few brave volunteers to explain what they mean by that. Without fail (whether in these parents meetings or in any context when someone admits to me that they aren’t a math person – which always seems to happen whenever you tell someone you’re a math teacher) there explanation falls somewhere along the lines of: I couldn’t remember all the rules, I wasn’t good at memorizing multiples, I never completed the problems fast enough, etc. Basically reiterating the prevailing view of society that to be a math person is to be efficient and accurate in computation and factual recall.

My typical response to people is “Yeah, I hate that stuff too. But I’m still a math person. What you’re describing isn’t how I see math. Can I show you how I see math?”

Our goal is to give students a very different impression of mathematics than what society has. We want to take away from students this go-to opt-out phrase of “Well, I’m not getting it, I’m just not a math person.” Mathematics, true mathematics, is inviting and uplifting for everyone.

How we as a department aim to cultivate students’ mathematical affections is through developing problem solvers. Below is a working summary of how our department defines problem solving (written to the student).

Defining Problem Solving: [1]

 Problem solving has been defined as what to do when you don’t know what to do. In some of your math classes, you probably learned about mathematical ideas by first working on an example and then practicing with an exercise. An exercise asks you to repeat a method you learned from a similar example. A problem is usually more complex than an exercise, so it is harder to solve because you don’t have a preconceived notion about how to solve it.

Problem Solving Expectations:

  1. Perseverance: Humility paired with confidence. Grit. In this class you will be asked to solve some tough problems. You will be able to solve most of them by being persistent and by talking with other students. When you come across an especially difficult problem, don’t give up. You may find that sometimes your first approach to a problem doesn’t work. When this happens, don’t be afraid to abandon the approach and try something else. Be persistent. If you get frustrated with a problem, put it aside and come back to it later. But don’t give up on the problem.
  2. Collaboration: You will be expected to talk to your classmates! Your teacher will ask you to get help from one another.
  3. Communication: In addition to working with your classmates, reading the book, and learning from your teacher, you will also be expected to communicate about your work and your mathematical thinking. You will do this by presenting your solutions to the entire class and by writing up complete solutions to problems. You will do presentations and write-ups, because talking and writing allow you to show your thinking. These communication processes will further develop your thinking skills.
  4. Grace: When you work with other students, you are free to make conjectures, ask questions, make mistakes, and express your ideas and opinions. You don’t have to worry about being criticized for your thoughts or your wrong answers.
  5. Service: Your growth in your math educational journey is not just about you. If the big problems of this world (curing disease, ending hunger, ending human trafficking, addressing sustainability, etc.) are going to be solved then mathematics will play a central role in their solution. If you are going to truly become a problem-solver then there has to be action taken.

At this point, after having explain our departmental goals and philosophy, I return to my original question.

“Ok, so you may not be a math person. But do you believe in the value of perseverance? Do you think collaborating in community and communicating ideas well are important skills? Do you believe in showing others grace and receiving grace yourself? I should hope so in our Christian community. Do you believe that we are called to serve others and put their needs before our own? If you said ‘yes’ to any of these, then congratulations, you’re a math person!

 

[1] Adapted from Johnson, K. & Herr, T. Problem Solving Strategies: Crossing the River with Dogs and Other Mathematical Adventures, 2nd Ed., Key Curriculum Press, 2001.

 

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