The Regents Podcast: Cultivating Affections for Math

The Regents Podcast is aimed to think about and equip how we practice that which is true, good, and beautiful in a 21st century context. The podcast gives Regents School of Austin a format to share with our community and beyond the amazing stories happening on our campus, and help equip parents shepherding their children’s hearts.

I was recently a guest on the podcast, invited to speak about the Regents math program. You can listen to the podcast here.

Podcast summary:

Dr. Josh Wilkerson, author of the God & Math blog, explains what it means to “think Christianly” about math. Along the way, he discusses how to pursue the true, good, and beautiful in a math education and how to deal with the phrase: “I am just not a math person.”

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AP with WE Service Learning Summit

AP and the College Board have partnered with WE to bring WE’s internationally recognized service-based learning framework and resources to AP courses, so students can use what they’re learning to tackle real-life social issues and challenges.service-learning to the AP classroom. Microsoft hosted the inaugural AP with WE Service Teacher Summit at their headquarters in Redmond, WA, March 4-5, 2019.

This event was an opportunity for teachers to meet fellow AP teachers, strengthen their implementation of AP with WE Service, learn best practices, and hear from Microsoft staff. A total of 50 teachers were selected to attend.

What follows below is the outline of the presentation I was asked to give at the summit on cultivating student affections through service-learning. I hope to be able to share the video of the presentation soon.

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My name is Josh Wilkerson and I teach AP Statistics. I also teach other math courses and as a math teacher there is one big question that I am often asked. You are probably asked it to in your other disciplines, but it is especially prevalent in math. The question usually is accompanied by the student having his kind of expression…

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Help me out, what is the big question? (Audience: when am I ever going to use this?)

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When am I ever going to use this (said in an exasperated way). It is never “When? When I am going to get to use this!?” (said in an excited way). Rather it is a dismissive question. Since we are at a conference on service-learning you might think you know where this is going. However, I hope to lead you in a slightly different direction. If we are honest with ourselves, how we respond to the student varies based on our mood at the time. In the best of scenarios we can give them a meaningful future application. In other scenarios we respond with how they will need the information for their next course, or more immediately, they’ll need it for the test next Tuesday.

I would like to pose to you that none of those answers are sufficient because, if we are being even more honest with ourselves, we know that the student isn’t really asking a question. The student is making a statement – a statement that they feel validates their disengagement from the lesson. I would also like to pose to you that if you were to translate their statement to an actual question it would be this…

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Why should I value this? I would argue that this is the most fundamental question to address in any classroom, even (or especially) mathematics. If we respond to the student’s surface level application question with cognitive information we will always have a disconnect. The student is actually longing for affective formation – however you want to parse that, into motivation or engagement or attitude or something else. The main thing is it is more than just being about what they know.

This is not only true for students. Close your eyes for a minute and imagine a great moment in your teaching career – something where everything was clicking and you were thinking “this is why I got into teaching.” Give me a word or short phrase to describe the mental image you came up with (solicit audience responses).

Notice that none of you told me “pythagorean theorem,” or “Great Gatsby,” or “mitosis.” None of you gave me content. Now, to be sure, the content was still there and was still operating on a high cognitive level I’m sure. My point is to not to dismiss content, but to perhaps reorient us on the primary objective of a classroom.

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These aren’t just our feelings. The importance of affect in education has been documented in research.

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Not only in research, but also in positional standards. I have here a few in mathematics but I’m sure that you can find something similar for any discipline. So with all this agreement and support, how are we doing?

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(Read slide). This quote is from 1992 but it is not dated. I know that it is not dated because, as I mentioned at the beginning, I’m a math teacher. Whenever I introduce myself to anyone and the topic of what I do for a living comes up, these are the number one responses I receive. Math teachers may be second only to priests in the number of confessions they take.

This is what keeps me up at night. This is what I want my classroom to address. How do we do that?

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We don’t do it by changing content or even focusing on student beliefs – we do it through rich experiences. The experience of the math classroom needs to change.

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THIS is where I think service-learning is powerful. Not as an answer to application, but as an answer to offering rich and meaningful experiences in the math classroom.

How are the affections of the student impacted when we change the experience of math class from this…

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To this.

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For the past three years my stats students have partnered with a local homeless ministry in Austin for survey research. Here is how they responded to a survey I gave them at the end of the year.

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Transition through graphs – point to growth in content knowledge but then also appreciation.

Yes service learning is application – but it is so much more than that. Through service learning we can shift student postures to ones of self-service (when will use this?) to the service of others. Ultimately their education is not just about them.

Let me close with some words from a student who began the year with a very negative attitude towards mathematics and that improved over the course of the service-learning project. I asked him about it and this is what he said.

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(After first bullet) I like this quote because I’m also a realist – I’m not setting out to make everyone always enthusiastic about math. But there are steps we can take and I think this student took them.

(Read rest of slide)

Why should I value this? Because it will benefit me and it will benefit others.

Thank you.

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The Text of Mathematics

Which of these is most similar to a math textbook?

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This past summer I was challenged by Jacob Mohler to consider the difference between a ‘text’ and a ‘textbook.’ The text is the original foundation and the textbook is (unsurprisingly as the name suggests) a book about the text. The Bible is a text. A Bible commentary is a textbook.

How would you classify the following? Text or textbook?

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Clearly these would be classified as textbooks. The question then arises: what is the text of mathematics? And perhaps more importantly, how are we engaging students with the text of mathematics?

A Christian cannot fully grow in their walk with the Lord by only ever engaging Bible commentaries – they have to spend time in the text, in the inspired word of God. If all we are ever giving our math students are the equivalent of commentaries, are we doing them a disservice? What is the text of mathematics that students need to engage with?

What the text of mathematics is NOT: I don’t think the answer to the question lies in teaching from original sources in mathematics, for instance using Euclid’s Elements in a geometry course. While Euclid offers a more ancient view of geometry, I’m not sure he offers the original view of geometry – he doesn’t even offer an always correct  view of geometry. I would still consider Euclid’s Elements a textbook. What makes the Bible different from Bible commentaries is not merely its age.

I would argue that there is no written, scriptural equivalent for mathematics. Rather, I believe the text of mathematics is this: the text is the teacher.

If we keep with the Bible versus Bible commentary analogy, I think there are actually two ways people can interact with the Bible. One way is certainly to sit down and read it. Another way people interact with the Bible (the text) is through their interactions with believers who have allowed the text (and in reality the creator and savior God behind the text) to transform their lives.

Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words. ~ St. Francis of Assisi

This quote from St. Francis speaks to the transformative power of the Gospel on the lives that we lead (not just the acquisition of new knowledge). Jesus says “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The way we live as Christians matters. It should point people to God. It should reveal to them in our actions what the text says in its words. Jesus was the “Word became flesh” (John 1:14) and that is our calling as Christians as well.

So then how do our math students interact with the text of mathematics? Through their interactions with their teacher.

I’ll often define my job as a “math appreciation teacher” rather than just a math teacher. Content delivery is only part of my job. In fact, as a new department chair I challenged my teachers that they weren’t hired for their ability to deliver content. In our technological age the reality is that students can get content from Khan Academy 9or any similar venue). The real job that my teachers were hired for is cultivating mathematical affections. Interacting with students in such a way that students see a noticeable difference in the affections/attitudes/dispositions of their teacher towards mathematics – that’s the real job.

The Gospel is more than content knowledge. Math is more than content knowledge. The affections (or lack thereof) in teachers play a much larger role in students’ experience of mathematics than I think people tend to credit. I challenge my teachers that they are the text of mathematics.

Teach math at all times. If necessary, explain content.