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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Cultivating Soulful Mathematicians

UPDATE (4/1/20): To ensure the health and safety of both attendees and speakers during the coronavirus pandemic the difficult decision has been made to cancel the Cultivating Soulful Mathematicians Conference for this summer. Be on the lookout for a rescheduled conference in the summer of 2021. 

It has been a while since I have posted here (and it seems like I start more and more posts with that caveat). In the past year I have been blessed with my dream job of overseeing the K-12 mathematics program at a Christian school. I have spent a lot of time on vertical alignment, evaluating our curriculum and proposing changes, teacher training, and running a social media public relations campaign to increase our parent community’s understanding of what we do in our math program. The work has been good and rewarding, but also time consuming.

Oh, and in my “spare time” I have been working with some amazing colleagues and brothers in Christ to launch a math conference. That is what I would like to share with you today.

The name of the conference is “Cultivating Soulful Mathematicians” and information along with registration details can be found here. Francis Su will be the keynote speaker and every conference participant will receive a copy of his forthcoming book Mathematics for Human Flourishing.

Where does the name of the conference come from?

Well, my colleagues and I had kicked around a few ideas including “math for human flourishing,” “cultivating mathematical affections” (if you’ve read anything on this site then you can guess who suggested this theme), and “math class as soul craft” (an homage to the book Shop Class as Soul Craft). These themes were close to what we were aiming for but none were perfect fits. Then I began reading the book Where Wisdom may be Found: the Eternal Purpose of Christian Higher Education. I have included this book on the “Resource” page and hope to post a review of it at some point (in my “spare time”).

I began reading this book because one chapter is entitled “The Joy of Mathematics.” While I thoroughly enjoyed that chapter it was actually another chapter that motivated this conference theme: “Becoming a Soulful Wordsmith.” Here is the apt excerpt:

Liberal arts learning has always emphasized the importance of discovering who we truly are, over and above acquiring practical skills that can be applied in a work context. Students who are dedicated to liberal arts learning, from a Christian perspective, will develop an enduring interest in their souls, especially as they are enlivened by the living Word Jesus. To be soulful, biblically speaking, is to be aware of, and participate in, the transforming work of redemption by the Lord who promises to bring life, and bring it “more abundantly” (John 10:10). This is the Christian version of seeking “the good life,” which is the prime directive of secular liberal arts.

This struck a chord with me as it seems to touch on all of the previous themes we had thrown out there but not been satisfied with.

  • “cultivating mathematical affections” – discovering who we truly are, over and above acquiring practical skills that can be applied in a work context
  • “math class as soul craft” – developing an enduring interest in their souls
  • “math for human flourishing” – the Christian version of seeking “the good life,” which is the prime directive of secular liberal arts

What do we hope to achieve at this conference?

From the conference description: Teaching and learning mathematics orients ourselves and our students in a posture of wonder and gratitude, with a desire to worship God and serve one another in community. Mathematics is the language through which we describe the natural world and give expression to our exploration of even the most abstract relationships between shapes and numbers. This is realized as teachers carefully attend to students through instructional practices and deliberate classroom liturgies that draw students into enduring understandings. In our time together, participants will assume the role of students as they exercise their mathematical imagination, experience collaborative problem solving that is both accessible and challenging, and communicate meaningful connections between multiple representations of ideas. Teachers will be led through the process of backward design, development of provocative anchor tasks, and composition of assessments that reflect the chief aim of cultivating mathematical affections.

I hope you’ll consider attending or at least spreading the word to others.

A Math Catechism

catechism ( /ˈkætəˌkɪzəm/; from Ancient Greek: κατηχέω, “to teach orally”) is a summary or exposition of doctrine and serves as a learning introduction to the Sacraments traditionally used in catechesis, or Christian religious teaching of children and adult converts.

For those unfamiliar with the practice of reciting a catechism, think of reciting the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, or a secular catechism like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. It is essentially a practice of oral recitation, the repetition of which aids to commit what is recited to memory.

Over the past year I’ve been thinking about what a math catechism might look like.

Teaching at a Christian school requires a deep and meaningful integration of faith with learning. Mathematics is the most foundational concept to integrate with Christian faith (at least in my mind). Math reveals the order that God used in creation and has imbued us with to create as well. Math gives us insight into what it means for something to be true or beautiful. These connections don’t easily lend themselves to particular math lessons. No math teacher should ever saying like “…and that’s how we derive the quadratic formula. You know, this reminds of that verse in Luke….” Math doesn’t integrate with faith in bite-size pieces. Rather it is the whole of mathematics that connects to our faith.

This brought me to the catechism. What if rather than just hoping my students see the deep connections between math and faith, they actually recite those connections every day? Even if the recitation isn’t meaningful in the beginning, the words are being committed to memory. As a child, I learned the Pledge of Allegiance even if I didn’t fully understand it’s implications until I was an adult. Wouldn’t it be amazing if my students could quickly give an answer to “how is a Christian to understand mathematics?” because that questions triggers a specific response that is lodged in their memory?

The thought of constructing something like this was planted in my brain by Joshua Gibbs in an Society for Classical Learning conference talk “How a Catechism can Transform Your Classroom.” I strongly encourage you to check it out.

What follows below is my first attempt at a math catechism. I have not yet decided how I will utilize this – if it is only for older students, or if younger students could learn it piece by piece over the years. I welcome any feedback and advice that you might have. Enjoy.

Regents School of Austin Mathematics Catechism

What is mathematics?

Mathematics is the science of patterns and the art of engaging the meaning of those patterns. (Francis Su)

What does it mean to be a mathematician – that is, to be mathematically literate?

Being mathematically literate includes having an appreciation of the value and beauty of mathematics as well as being able and inclined to appraise quantitative information. (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics)

To whom is mathematics accessible? Who can be a mathematician?

For those enquirers to whom God has given the ability, whose judgment is not clouded by stubbornness… The order and truth of numbers has nothing to do with the senses of the body, but it does exist, complete and immutable, and can be seen in common by everyone who uses reason. (Augustine)

 If math is accessible to all and all are capable of being a mathematician, what is the calling or the chief aim of the mathematician?

The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics. (Johannes Kepler)

How has God authored this order and harmony? How has God imbued meaning, value, and beauty in the patterns of creation?

Through Christ, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)

How then is the Christian to understand mathematics?

In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, ’That is mine!’ (Abraham Kuyper)

In exploring mathematics one is exploring the nature of God’s rule over the universe; in other words, one is exploring the nature of God himself. (Vern Poythress)

How does a Christian understanding of God, creation, and humanity lend insight into grasping the effectiveness of mathematics?

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. (Eugene Wigner)

God created humanity in his own image, giving humans the ability to imagine things in mathematical terms.

Creation has been endowed with beautiful and fruitful properties by the creator. Creation possesses order and structure that can be characterized mathematically.

Humans apply their natural curiosity and their ability to formulate mathematical descriptions to the world they inhabit.

Humanity responds to God by exploring, describing, and wisely stewarding God’s creation. (John Mays)

The goal of the Regents mathematics program is to cultivate problem-solvers. What are the pillars of problem-solving?

Perseverance. Confidence paired with humility. Grit. There is no opting out. Even if a solution isn’t reached there is still much to be gained from being engaged in the process.

Communication and collaboration. Math is not meant to be done in isolation and neither the teacher nor the textbook is the ultimate authority. I am expected to engage with my classmates and communicate my reasoning in verbal, visual, and written form. I am expected to talk to my classmates! These communication processes will further develop my thinking skills.

Grace. Mistakes will be made. They must be made in order to learn. I must feel free to make conjectures, ask questions, make mistakes, and express my ideas and opinions without fear of criticism. I am expected to show grace to my classmates and my teacher. And I can expect to receive grace from my classmates and my teacher.

Service. A problem is never truly solved without a mindset of serving others. My math education is not ultimately about self-promotion, rather it is about equipping me to love and serve others well.

As a student studying mathematics through a Christian lens, you are called to not only learn content but to cultivate virtue. Mathematician, what do you commit cultivate?

 I commit to cultivating: my imagination, my determination, my curiosity, my creativity, my generosity, my charity. I commit to cultivating my mathematical affections.