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.

 

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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.

 

Is it the journey or the arrival?

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Photo by @przemekklos: https://www.twenty20.com/photos

I have probably read the same argument a dozen times. The language and the nuances of the argument very only slightly between articles. These are just the two most recent articles to cross my path:

Calculus Is the Peak of High School Math. Maybe It’s Time to Change That. ~ Education Week

Should We Stop Teaching Calculus in High School? ~ Forbes

The basic synopsis: not everyone needs calculus. Stop making calculus the end goal of the K-12 math sequence. Everyone needs a better grasp of data analysis and digital technology. Teach more statistics and computer science. Teach students the math that they really need.

Typically these articles focus on replacing AP Calculus with AP Statistics and/or AP Computer Science or some other programming course. Each article on this topic does note the exception that those interested in STEM fields do actually need Calculus. These articles are typically framed around what everyone else should take – how to offer better (framed as more useful) math for the “I’m not a math person” crowd.

Some, most notably Andrew Hacker, go so far as to suggest that the “I’m not a math person” crowd doesn’t even need algebra much less calculus.

Is Algebra Necessary? ~ NY Times

However, upon closer inspection one might come to realize that the argument is not one of course sequencing or graduation requirements. Here is a quote from Hacker in the above article:

Instead of investing so much of our academic energy in a subject that blocks further attainment for much of our population, I propose that we start thinking about alternatives. Thus mathematics teachers at every level could create exciting courses in what I call “citizen statistics.” This would not be a backdoor version of algebra, as in the Advanced Placement syllabus. Nor would it focus on equations used by scholars when they write for one another. Instead, it would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.

This issue seems to be one of “usefulness.” Calculus isn’t useful for most people. Statistics is useful for most people. Algebra isn’t useful for most people. Programming (or some type of computer course) is useful for most people.

However, things start to get muddled when you define the end goal or purpose of education as one of utility. Picking up right where the above quote leaves off:

It could, for example, teach students how the Consumer Price Index is computed, what is included and how each item in the index is weighted — and include discussion about which items should be included and what weights they should be given.

So we should teach how a certain applicable function is influenced by variable inputs but we shouldn’t teach Algebra? Isn’t that the definition of Algebra? How can we jump to the “useful” application without grounding students’ understanding enough for the application to mean anything?

I believe what is really happening is that Hacker would rather see “useful” algebra rather than something like, say, factoring trinomials. Nobody (well, almost nobody) factors trinomials for their profession or to get through their daily life. One could make the counter argument that nobody (well, almost nobody) diagrams sentences for their profession or to get through their daily life – but an understanding of grammar and syntax lays a foundation for language development that allows people to craft a blog post (or something more substantial).

Perhaps the sentence diagramming argument isn’t really a counter argument but just the same argument Hacker and others are making but applied to English rather than mathematics. Perhaps what is really underlying these articles that are making the argument of teaching more “useful” mathematics is that these articles are less a commentary on the content in the mathematics curriculum and more a commentary on (perceived) pedagogies in the mathematics curriculum. In other words, perhaps the argument is less about what is taught and it is more about how it is taught.

Disenchantment with the traditional teaching methods employed have left people looking to jump to the practical applications without journeying through foundations to get there.

If you try to convince students that the value in learning to factor trinomials is in its usefulness then it should be no surprise that we see articles like Hacker’s today – eventually those students grow up and realize the farce they endured in math class (actually, they recognized it as a farce instantly but now as adults they are able to make their voices heard more easily).

How we teach math certainly matters. I’ve written about that numerous times (see: Cultivating Mathematical Affections). The problem with these articles is that they don’t really address the how question but rather focus on changing the what. Their focus is on altering the end goal and not about altering the methods of the journey. It saddens me that this argument has gained such wide popularity (as seen in the number of these types of articles).

Let’s try a different approach and let’s start by defining terms.

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Notice the term “course” in the definition above. Curriculum, from Latin, literally refers to the act of running or a race track. It is the same concept used in Hebrews 12:1-2 and in 2 Timothy 4:7. It is a reference to being active, to engaging in the struggle of the race, to enduring the distance, to competing. It is not an arrival or a finish line – it is the journey through the race itself.  Discussions about the “peak” of the math curriculum miss this.

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading through Teaching and Christian Imagination. In it, David Smith uses the metaphors of journeying, building, and gardening to reflect on educational practices in light of Christian teaching. Below is an extensive quote from his section on journeying that I believe will be very instructive:

The journey metaphor offers us a different picture of the learner than the passive receptacle. And yet it still leaves the nature and purpose of the journey open for debate. As educational history has walked hand in hand with cultural history, imagery associated with educational journeys has shifted from travel on foot to riding in a coach and then to driving along a highway. In older Christian appropriations of the image, the path was given by God and led (at a more deliberate and deliberative pace) towards God as its destination. In the Enlightenment, the sense of destination remained, but the goal was reframed in terms of movement towards the virtuous life of the useful citizen. As travel became more widely available, the idea of education opening up new horizons took hold. The image of the 19th century explorer offered a version of travel as deliberatively leaving the well-trodden path and collecting new experiences in exotic, uncharted territories. Later still, the rise of mass tourism tilted the image of travel towards comfort, efficiency, and consumption, evoking anxieties concerning educational tourists whose shallow gaze skims the main sights but does not linger for long enough to be changed. The educational path is now giving way to talk of an educaitonal superhighway with a powerful emphasis on speed of information. Alongside these shifts came a gradual yet momentous reversal in which the experience of journeying itself overtook the pursuit of a hallowed destination as the central emphasis; simply being in motion at increasing speed and with increasing range became an end in itself. Eventually, with the fading of a shared destination, any self-chosen destination became equally valid.

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Any self-chosen destination becomes equally valid – be in calculus or statistics or whatever else appears most “useful.”

In contrast to this modern perspective, Smith goes on to discuss the concept of journeying on a pilgrimage in the Biblical narrative, particularly in the Old Testament pilgrimages to the temple.

To read Scripture is to encounter on a regular basis people leaving the security of home and setting out into the unknown. (p. 19)

The worshipers find their strength not ultimately in the place of worship, but in the one worshiped there, who is with them on the road as well as in the sanctuary… It is not a journey from where God is not to where he is, but a celebration of God’s rule over the entire land. (p. 24)

Blessing is not tied to arrival… They (the pilgrims) doggedly seek blessing, practice works of mercy, and erect signs of the kingdom. Treading a pilgrim path involves placing oneself within a tradition… The paths were not already cut into the landscape, but had to be made and maintained by walking. (p. 25)

The individual pilgrim learns the path both from elders who passed this way in previous years, and by walking, by going along it for the first time and gaining a familiarity that might lead to becoming a future guide for others. (pp. 25-26)

It is a journey not towards spring break, towards a strong grade point average, or towards employment, but towards standing in the presence of God and seeing God give new life to the world… God’s glory fills creation, and setting our faces towards God and our hearts on the highway is a celebration of God’s sovereignty over every territory through which we pass. (p. 26)

In these arguments over content and methodology, destinations and journeying, the what and the how, I find it refreshing as a Christian math teacher to recall that God is not just the author of the content but also how we come to know it. There is something the journey is meant to do to us – it is not simply meant to be endured until reaching a destination.

Is factoring trinomials presented in the classroom as a task to be endured until students can reach the more useful destination of the Consumer Price Index? Or is there a way that we as math teachers can reshape our classroom and reframe our teaching methods so that students experience the value of the journey?

I think there is.

I can’t offer a prescription of how to do this in every class so I conclude by simply challenging teachers to consider how their classrooms and their curriculum are focused on getting students to a destination versus equipping students for a transformative journey.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

~Antoine de Saint-Exupery (from the beginning of Paul Lockhart’s “A Mathematican’s Lament” book)