Breaking Out of the Silo: The Importance of Math-in-Context
When I mention that I was a high school math teacher, the revelation always elicits a strong response.
There are usually a handful of supportive engineers, financiers, computer programmers and the like, but these individuals most often have a positive impression of the subject because of its utility in their profession or area of interest.
The larger category of coworkers, friends, and Chipotle employees (it’s important to develop a relationship with your burrito assembler) react with a mix of fear, anxiety, and disdain. It seems like they are expecting me to follow up with an algebra quiz in the next breath instead of “hot salsa, please.” When someone from this faction is willing to engage with me further, the reasons for the strong reaction become apparent: a ‘mean’ teacher in middle or high school; pressure about a low score on the SAT; the idea that letters should not comingle with numbers like that. This is the same reaction I have seen in the classroom with regularity.
There is one more subset of people reacting to the disclosure of my experience as an educator: the math lovers. These people come from all types of backgrounds and current professions, and they almost never use math directly in their job or life beyond basic arithmetic (the obvious exception is math professors and other secondary math teachers). They are immediately interested in talking more about the subject because their experience with math was positive, and they want to engage in a discussion about their favorite topic or this really cool problem they still remember from 15 years ago.
My greatest educational concern is how many more people experience math anxiety rather than math joy by the end of high school. We can change that distribution by our approach in the classroom every day. Math should be fun and interesting and available to all students. That includes exposure to traditional math learning with problem-solving strategies and the development of specific skills and abilities in algebra, geometry, and calculus. It also includes a broader approach to developing a love and appreciation of math. There should be an emphasis on real-world problems solved through the topics from the curriculum. We should focus more on depth of knowledge and analytic thinking patterns that lead to breakthroughs in understanding and engagement with the material than on the topics to be covered and how far the class can get in a textbook over a given period of time.
Mathematics also needs to break out of its silo. The strict distinction of courses in math between algebra I, geometry, algebra II, and precalculus does not always make pedagogical sense. We need to allow the topics and subtopics to appear and be addressed as they happen in the classroom. Additionally, math overlaps with all other subjects: science, history, art, English, foreign language, etc. We should be adding a mathematics perspective and structured reasoning into these other courses, and we need to incorporate other fields of study into our math classes. Math assessment does not have to be a series of quizzes and tests; instead, writing assignments, monitored group problem-solving tasks, authentic assessments, oral presentations, and portfolios can help each student find a path to success and interest in the subject.
The curriculum and approach to mathematics at The Stone Independent School will reflect this philosophy. We will meet our students where they are and help them to develop skills and interest in the subject.