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Meet the education academics reimagining how math is taught

Advocates of ‘humanistic math’ are on a mission to help schoolchildren from all backgrounds see the world differently.

BY DIANE PETERS | OCT 20 2021

“I know what times is now, it’s just groups!” a Grade 3 student called out to her class. She had been rolling dice, jumping on a line and recording each set on a worksheet. The activity was part of a hands-on math class facilitated by Lisa Lunney Borden, a professor of education from St. Francis Xavier University. She and her colleagues have undertaken a project to support young Mi’kmaw students through what she calls “the verbing of math.”

Indigenous languages are verb-based, in contrast to noun-centric English, French and other European languages. Playing and exploring also helps cement learning. Dr. Lunney Borden encourages students to understand math concepts viscerally before stamping them with labels. “We’re creating a space that aligns with children’s way of knowing, creating a space where kids can actually use a verb-based worldview to engage with math thinking,” she said.

Dr. Lunney Borden is reimagining math through her research projects in K-12 classrooms, and in her teacher education instruction. She is part of a movement of education academics exploring a humanistic approach to teaching K-12 math — also called social justice, anti-racist or decolonizing math. They’re also discovering how to support teachers to put this into practice in their classrooms.

Also joining this approach is Joel Westheimer, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Ottawa. He said math “is just the last subject to get on board this general trend of making learning more relevant.” While K-12 pedagogy increasingly embraces skills, understanding and exploration, and encourages learners to question the assumptions in their lectures and textbooks, Dr. Westheimer noted that math class is still often relegated to looking at statistics.

“Starting in the elementary years, students begin to become disconnected with mathematics,” said Cynthia Nicol, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of British Columbia, “or it’s a relationship of trauma and emotional duress.” This can cement existing inequities. Math scores are impacted by factors such as family income and race. At the same time, the most stable and best-paying jobs are increasingly in professions related to science and technology that are math-reliant. However, math “can be conceptualized as more than a set of topics that we need to make our way through,” Dr. Nicol said.

Flipping the order

Traditional math instruction tends to start with the theory and expects learners to pick up on the context and why they might use it. Glen Aikenhead, a professor emeritus from the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan, noted that math lovers do this naturally in their heads and see useful math all around them. But most people do not, so humanistic math flips the order. “The first thing you have to do is show students how it’s used in their world, and then you teach abstractions,” he said.

Schoolchildren might go on math walks to observe shapes, sizes and the relationships between them. While working in classes of mostly Cree students, Dr. Aikenhead saw beading and dancing leveraged to understand concepts such as patterns. He calls such a process “mathematizing” (which is similar to Dr. Lunney Borden’s ideas around the verbing of math). “The teacher will teach some examples of mathematizing, and we would decide how to connect that to the curriculum,” he said. Teaching math through an Indigenous lens helps all students from all backgrounds, Dr. Aikenhead said, and that finding has been documented worldwide. When students learn this way, they like math more and they do better.

Academics have also created resources to support K-12 teaching. Most are online, through sites such as Dr. Lunney Borden’s Show Me Your Math, UBC’s Indigenous Math Education Network and The Robertson Program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Still, while math classes in Canada are changing, you won’t see this approach used everywhere. Elementary students often use play in order to understand concepts, but play-based learning is less common in upper grades. “Teachers have so many other obligations and pressures and institutional requirements. That makes it more challenging at the high school level,” said Dr. Nicol.

Dr. Aikenhead said that questioning the assumptions of conventional math often evaporates in Grades 7 to 12, when the goal becomes preparing students for university. “That’s what fundamentally causes all the problem,” he said. “It’s the proverbial tail wagging the dog.”

Those outside the education system don’t always see the value of humanistic math — or even understand what it is. When Ontario released a new math curriculum for Grade 9 in July 2021, a preamble that explained the subject’s relationship to racism and colonialism was removed at the last minute. “In math, let’s stick with math,” Premier Doug Ford said in response.

But math happens in nature, cooking, artistic creation and, critically, it’s used to make policy arguments on everything from housing to public health. Education academics exploring humanistic math, and how to teach it, are developing pedagogy and curriculum to enable schoolchildren from all backgrounds to see the world differently. “It’s about connecting,” said Dr. Nicol, “and opening up the windows to see mathematics in places that may not have been considered mathematical.”

 

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  1. Joel Westheimer / October 24, 2021 at 12:19

    If you are a parent concerned that your child is being “held back” because they’re learning math with less-capable peers instead of being tracked into a gifted class…

    And/or if you are frustrated because there seems to be evidence on all sides of the “math wars” that is contradictory…

    Here are some thoughts:

    (1) Education isn’t rocket science by which I mean it’s way more complicated. Evidence falls on both sides of issues not (necessarily) because the research is shoddy and the outcomes unreliable, but because nobody agrees on the questions.

    (2) If your child is a little savant who will one day solve Fermat’s last theorem, then she should probably be in her own class without any classmates to slow her down. But of course, she really shouldn’t be in school at all except for social reasons (which is why she should be in school) because she’ll learn all by herself with some books, an internet connection, and, you, the parent with time on her hands.

    (3) If (2) is not what you’re going for, the world gets complicated. But I’m comfortable saying that for many many children — likely well more than a majority — the kind of curriculum described in this article (which skips the long history of these efforts and their enormous popularity south of the border — see Stanford University professor Jo Boaler’s work, for example) will encourage more children to understand what they’re doing, not be intimidated by math, and take further math courses in the future.

    (4) Nobody wants to make learning the times tables and other think-less formulas illegal. Obviously, tricks, formulas, anything that gets to the right answer quickly and with minimal effort is valuable. Anyone who says that “new math” curriculum doesn’t care whether kids get the right answer is baiting you. Still, I do love that Tom Lehrer song about the “new math” from the 1960s. Listen to it – it will make you laugh: “Don’t worry…base 8 is the same as base 10…if you’re missing two fingers.”

    4. Nor are there any teachers who willingly prevent kids who have a gift for mathematics progress further than those who don’t. What they are doing is trying to survive in an underfunded school system that fails to respect their professional expertise and has too many kids in a class to allow them to give the individual and individuated attention the kids deserve. So they make do. One of the reasons so-called “gifted” classes are desirable for parents is because they’re smaller — gifted kids, the logic goes, need more attention, choice in the projects they take on, focused learning on things they’re interested in, and so on. Show me a kid who wouldn’t benefit from that – “gifted” or not.

    5. Bottom line? Any orthodoxy is a problem in education. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to education problems. Kids vary too much. But demystifying math, grounding it in the real world, linking it to student interest and curiosity is a better approach than drill and skill for most things. Still, my kids’ school didn’t make them memorize the times tables. So I did.