Monday, August 6, 2018

Do the Math

What do folks mean when they say, "do the math"?

How about, "I'm not a math person"?

For what, by and large, do folks (randomly sampled from the entire population of English speakers who know the word
math) mean by math?

In a recent survey of LAUSD elementary teachers, most agreed with the statement "Some students have a natural talent for mathematics and others do not." There is a camp of math educators who disagree with this statement, but it seems they are in the minority. Is it possible that the primary confound in this conundrum is differing definitions of math?

To me, doing math means much more than the arithmetic that comes once a solution strategy has been followed to its natural end. Once a complex problem becomes a simple computation, the math is done, and the computers have homework.

I recently presented for the California Mathematics Project at Cal Poly Pomona and had this to say,

What are some things that the computer can't do that I am going to continuously do with my students to get them to reimagine what math is?
Over the course of two hours, I tried to make the point to a group of primary teachers that math is not about getting correct answers, rather it is about discovering patterns, the structure of solution strategies and critiquing each others reasoning.

Watching the entire video and writing this post, I realized some unstated goals:

    Demonstrate how math is a creative process
    Create dissonance around what it means to "Do the math"
    Create dissonance around what it means to be or not to be a "Math person"

If you or someone you know has a similar goal for their students, parents, or teachers; what are some strategies or suggestions you have to create such experiences for folk? I'd love to discuss ways to measure progress toward these goals in the comments.

This post is mainly a recapitulation of Lockhart's Lament and a resounding "hear hear" to Conrad Wolfram's 2010 TED, Teaching Kids Real Math.

SALVIATI: If everyone were exposed to mathematics in its natural state, with all the challenging fun and surprises that that entails, I think we would see a dramatic change both in the attitude of students toward mathematics, and in our conception of what it means to be “good at math.” We are losing so many potentially gifted mathematicians— creative, intelligent people who rightly reject what appears to be a meaningless and sterile subject. They are simply too smart to waste their time on such piffle.

Yet even though we have read and watched these ideas, think to yourself the next time you say or hear someone use the phrase "do the math" or "I'm not a math person": has anything changed... yet?

Written for Sam Shah's Virtual Conference of Mathematical Flavors