We had a numeracy PD day a few weeks ago. This filled me with trepidation having barely survived high school mathematics. It began with a warning about how we frame mathematics:

Fair enough. Evidently I’m not the only one who treats mathematics with caution, but I can see the point about how negatively framing maths with students can cause problems. If you don’t think maths are a useful tool that can help you solve real world problems then you’ve been living under a rock. Everyone should develop basic numeracy. I’ll try and do better with how I’m framing it, but that doesn’t mean maths gets a free pass on how it’s delivered.

We then did a maths based online escape room exercise with Edtechteam. This was an engaging process, but it cast a bright light on what was for me one of the problems with trying to learn maths: parsing poorly written word problems.

When one of our group (a published playwright with a Masters in English) suggested that the questions were vague to the point of being misleading the math teacher in our group said, “yeah, but any language based question is going to be somewhat unclear.” The English teacher looked at her quizzically and said, “no it isn’t.”

Therein lies the problem. If a teacher who has never focused on developing strong language skills gets lost in creating nuanced word problems to get at complex mathematics, you can see where this might go wrong for everyone.

From the point of view of someone who doesn’t pick up maths easily, confusing language doesn’t engage me, it does the opposite. I’d rather (and I speak as an English major) have the maths served straight up without any confusing or misleading language in the mix, but maths teachers seem determined to lean on language skills they don’t have in order to confuse the numeracy they do have.

This problem appeared again when we got out to an exercise where we (again, in groups) were supposed to find factors in an array of numbers, but rather than simply explaining the logic involved, the activity was dressed up in a tax avoidance theme that made no sense to me or the science and history teachers I was working on it with. So far this morning both maths activities had demanded that we embrace confusing and contradictory language in order to get at the logic below.

In this activity, if you selected a number to get paid the ‘tax man’ got all the factors of that choice. So if you picked twelve, the tax man got 1 2, 3, 4 and 6 dollars. When I asked how I was being taxed $16 on the $12 I made I was told that the taxes don’t actually come out of the money I was making, which isn’t helpful. When I suggested that people should pay taxes in order to support all the benefits of society they enjoy and shouldn’t be trying to dodge paying them, I was told that I was putting too much thought into this. At least someone is. This has always been the way with me and mathematics, especially when it dresses itself up in confusing language in a desperate attempt to appear more interesting.

I think I’m a pretty sharp fellow. I’ve been able to calculate binary subnets in order to build networks and I’ve never had trouble doing the maths needed to be a mechanic or a technician. When the maths are immediate and real I’m able to get a handle on it, but the bubble gum world of high school mathematics has always alienated and confused me. It seems arbitrary and nonsensical because it often is.

Maybe the best way we can frame mathematics is to stop trying to make it into something it isn’t. If we treated it like the tool it can be instead of trying to turn it into some kind of spy based action adventure or libertarian tax dodging daydream, we wouldn’t have so many people feeling alienated by it.

Of course, the solution is obvious but how we solve it is prevented by how we organize education into departments. If we collaborated on word problems with the English department, we’d remove a lot of that confusion. If we applied our mathematics through science, business and technology we wouldn’t get lost in the confusion of maths for maths’ sake. We could be applying mathematics in the statistics we use in social sciences or the ratios we use in art, but we separate numeracy off in high school and let it atrophy in a maths classroom that struggles to connect to the real.

Ironically, our PD followed these two engaging but ultimately confusing activities up with two teachers telling us about their experimental manufacturing technology-mathematics combined course which encourages applied maths students to work through manufacturing technology in solving real-world problems. No imaginary tax schemes. No escape rooms. Just applying maths to real world problems in an unobstructed and meaningful way that leads to outcomes that are transparent and obvious.

This would mean combining mathematics with other courses and then working to integrate numeracy into those subjects in a constructive and transparent way. There could still be an academic/abstracted mathematics stream for the tiny percentage of students who would need it, but for those of us who aren’t aiming to be theoretical physicists or academic mathematicians, we need our math served up without the garnishes. Knowing what we’re doing it and why we’re doing it would go a long way to alleviating the maths anxiety so many of us have.

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