"For the most part most school math problems force children from young to think about trivialized situations where, to be honest, math makes no practical sense."
It seems I've been on a tear lately about the kind of ‘petty’ that school math problems foster. For the most part they force children from young to think about trivialized situations where, to be honest, math makes no practical sense. Take, for example, this problem: Susan buy 3 pizzas and give five-eighths of a pizza to John. How much pizza does she have left? Okay, so you've probably seen problems like these so much it doesnt faze you. But if I am John [or Jamal or Khan] I have some questions. I grew up with three brothers [Mark, Khan and Shanns] and believe me if we ever found ourselves in a sharing situation, there are all kinds of fairness issues to engage in beyond distribution of say...pizza slices. For example, my youngest brother is 7 years younger and at a certain age would not be able to handle same proportions. Let’s also suppose my oldest brother bought the pizza and will command (by sibling right) the lion’s share of the take. That leaves my slight older brother and I to share in some to-bedetermined manner. I give this example to point how natural it would be to consider a math problem in this context but also to illustrate how far removed the problems we give children are from really ‘mattering’ in everyday life.
'MATH IS PETTY!'
In some ways, we mistakenly send a message early to children that mathematics is ‘petty’ [concerned about absolute nothingness, yet making a big deal about it]. Simply, kids learn that math is ‘stupid’. Stupid, yes, but subtly infused with value-laden and culture-filled [whose?]. Such as, the focus on pizza, and chocolate, no doubt playing off of western kids’ perceived and commercialized interest [I am eating a Twix as I write]. And yet students also need to always think more carefully about what they eat, how they share - with whom, and for what purpose. There is so much more potential in our mathematics if we would be more honest about the fact (1) we actually do already use mathematics to transmit cultural values and (2) we sometimes use ‘arbitrary nonsense’ situations to deliberately avoid having students get to attached to said situations. We wish them to think deeply about the math, but not deeply about themselves, others and community. This seems like a ‘petty’ point to make but in actuality represents the beginning of the end, the start of a pipeline of miserable experiences for those who don’t do mathematics well. Hey, even those who do well struggle to continue in the field beyond college, opting to connect to life endeavors that — actually connect to themselves, other and the world around them.
There is a more insidious side to this, beyond discouraging future math-doers. When we perpetuate a culture of trivial mathematics doers, we also contribute to a future cohorts of teachers who further learn to teach mathematics from worksheets, photocopy silly math problems from texts without question or forethought. On the other hand, when acknowledged about the role culture might play in engaging students in mathematics, are then tasked with going back to ‘infuse culturally relevant teaching’ into mathematical situations. My experience has taught me that the hardest thing to do is to take a problem like ‘Mark had 13 chocolates...’ or '2x + 6 = 10...’ and THEN try to make it connect to students. Usually this is done by incorporating some trivial conversation to launch the problem or concocting a scenario to fit all to unbelievable numbers and patterns.
Using mathematics in this way, not only seems natural, it places practitioners with even the best of responsive intentions to settle for uninspiring experiences. Given the plethora of district and program templates for lesson planning, the additional effort often dissuades difficult and produces more work for teachers. Cuturally relevant teaching or culturally responsive teaching is designed to liberate teachers from this kind of unsatisfying quagmire. It takes us beyond the petty.
Culturally responsive teaching redefines teaching by ensuring students connect mathematics to themselves, community and challenges them through inquiry and problem solving that underscores strength, interdependence, critical consciousness, and justice.
Community and self THEN content
Representing mathematics and by extension, mathematics instruction will require teachers, doers and creators to ask better questions in general, and rethink the ORDER of things. Yes, this challenges what we have been led to believe about mathematics.
Think of questions, inquiry and activity that is centered in community and culture. THEN use mathematics to address.
I find this takes more than anything a SHIFT in order. Community and self THEN content. It also takes some time to become comfortable with this kind of approach. And to be clear, the approach is making better decisions about content by focusing on the WHO (then the WHAT and HOW). My hope is that more mathematics teachers will begin to challenge the ‘starting points’ of content selection and work to reinvigorate what they use in classroom teaching — for the sake of children and making authentic connections through mathematics engagement. In my next blog (Hope's Taxonomy) I'll write more about how lesson plans can incorporate different verbs to focus the lesson around this kind of work. This is the makings of #ourmathematics. If you want to connect around this kind of work see more on my page or join the campaign on twitter,using hashtag #ourmathematics.