The question I have encountered the most often in teaching mathematics is: “When am I ever going to use this?” The reality is this is not a question but rather it is a statement. It is a statement of frustration. It is the culmination of confusion and stress and typically serves as an exclamation by the student of their withdrawal from the mental activity at hand. In other words, the answer to the question “When am I ever going to use this?” has already formed in the student’s mind as “I will never use this so learning it is a waste of time.” The real issue being raised by students is not one of application, but rather one of values. I have found that the best response to such a statement/question is to first translate it into what I believe the student truly meant to express, turning “When am I ever going to use this?” into “Why should I value this?” I believe that “Why should I value this?” is the question of ultimate concern in the mathematics classroom, and this is the question upon which my teaching philosophy is built.
One of the best descriptions of education that I have seen comes from James K.A. Smith in his book Desiring the Kingdom where he states: Education is not primarily a heady project concerned with providing information; rather, education is most fundamentally a matter of formation, a task of shaping and creating a certain kind of people. For Smith, what makes them a certain kind of people is what they love and their desires/affections/dispositions are shaped through the liturgies (practices or habits) of education. With this in mind, education should ultimately seek to inculcate into students a deep value and appreciation for learning, for wisdom, and for people through the liturgies of the various academic disciplines.
What is the nature of learning?
Each individual student is imbued with the ability to grow in knowledge and appreciation of the world around him/her. Every student is created with the aptitude to become an independent, critical, and imaginative thinker. This growth is to be undertaken with appropriate humility and reflection. Education should ultimately lead to renewed minds in transformed and mature students, equipped for service and loving mission to the world.
What is the role of the teacher/professor?
Educators must have a passion is to teach students to think well and reason correctly, valuing and applying wisdom in all areas of life. Being entrusted with the stewardship of a student’s education is a high calling and is not to be taken lightly. Therefore teachers must be diligent to grow in their own professional understanding and engage regularly in professional development within community as well as personal, critical, reflective practices. It is the responsibility of the teacher, as a steward of the students’ education, to guide the students’ maturation as an independent, critical, and imaginative thinker. This is done by insightful instruction, with creative encouragement and an infectious enthusiasm for their subject.
What is the nature and purpose of the curriculum?
The curriculum is not merely factual knowledge to be transmitted to students but rather, as noted by Smith, the formative practices of educational environment. The teacher’s duty is to foster a natural learning environment in which students learn by confronting intriguing, important, and beautiful problems. This environment must be supportive and it should challenge students to take risks in the learning process: to grapple with ideas, rethink their assumptions, and examine their mental models of reality.
The students should be helped to consciously and consistently implement the ways of thinking to which they are exposed and to value wisdom. Learning has little meaning unless it produces a sustained and substantial influence on the way people think, feel, act, and ultimately serve.