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Teaching Mathematics in Canada…

I have been teaching future mathematics and science secondary teachers for the past four months. This has been a very special opportunity for me. I had a privilege to spend time with people who all had graduated with science and mathematics B.Sc. degrees from our universities and who are motivated and inspired to teach the next generation… I have a lot of respect for my students as I do believe that teaching mathematics and science is one of the most exciting professions (or should I say life choices) in the world… I would not have chosen this career myself if I didn’t think so. What is even more interesting, is that we have student-teachers from many different countries who have experienced very different mathematics education… We have student-teachers from Taiwan, China, India, Mexico, former USSR (me), Canada. We have student-teachers who traveled a lot and had an opportunity to experience schooling in different countries.

During our class (which is called Inquiry into Mathematics and Science Education) we discuss different issues. One issue that came up is the gap between East Asian students and other students in Canadian schools. What is going on with our North American born-and-raised students who somehow are convinced that doing math is a special quality that not everybody is born with. We of course can discuss what “doing math” means, but how come so many of out kids fail to master basic mathematics skills and concepts? Do you need to be a genius to do algebra? How come “doing fractions” is considered a “high-level” skill for many otherwise normal people?

I am biased. I love math. I love mathematics because I can see the beauty of problems (not only because it helps me balance my checkbook), I love mathematical proofs because they have an elegance in them, I love mathematics because it is an intellectual challenge… However, why do I happen to think and feel like that? I do not think I am super-gifted or super-talented in mathematics. I am a normal curious person who had a very supportive environment while growing up (I am lucky to have a very intellectually supportive environment now too) . I think I had a fortune to be born into a family of people who loved mathematics (my mom is a math and physics teacher and my dad is an engineer). Maybe I was fortunate to be born int he USSR (who would have thought I will say it) during the cold war era where and when mathematics and science were valued and girls were considered to be as able to succeed in these fields as the boys.  I was fortunate to have teachers who loved math and have family members who “tutored me in math” – my uncle and aunt who both were math and science professors. The word “tutored” meant that they shared with me the excitement of mathematics and science. I still remember how my uncle explained to me the idea of Gauss’s theorem and the concept of electric flux… This was very cool. I had a fortune to be surrounded by people who valued intellectual challenges… How many of our students can say the same thing? What if from the beginning you are surrounded by elementary teachers who hate math but who have to teach it anyways? What if our students’ parents believe that math is something nobody likes but you have to do to get to university? What if their friends hate math as well… So what does it mean to succeed in math? Does doing well on the test mean that you will see the beauty of mathematics and will have pleasant memories of it for the rest of your life?

As I was listening to the interview on CBC radio and heard the calls from the listeners, I felt hurt… I felt pain, the same way I would have felt it if people called and started asking me why we need to spend time on teaching arts? What if arts or music is not a part of your life? Will it affect you? What if not being able to read was considered to be OK? I am not going to discuss critical thinking here, but I just want to say that robbing our kids of a quality inspiring math education doesn’t give them a chance to experience something amazing. To see patterns, to ask interesting questions, to see elegance in the world around us. It is akin to robbing our children of poetry… of music … of love… I also noticed how the interviewer also made it clear that she didn’t have any pleasant memories of her own mathematics education…

A few days ago my sons asked me if I ever read Shakespeare in English. I haven’t. I grew up reading Romeo and Juliet in Russian in translation of one of the greatest Russian poets Boris Pasternak. Pasternak helped me enjoy the poetry in translation that I would not have been able to enjoy then… Now, 30 years later, I decided that I am ready for Shakespeare in the original version (luckily I have The Teaching Company courses to help me) and I have the Internet to help me translate the words I do not know… It is something I want to do because I was inspired then and I know how beautiful the translation of Shakespeare is into my native tongue. I am not an expert on Shakespearean English, neither am I an English literature educator. Yet, I am a human being who enjoys poetry because I was exposed to it as a child and have very good memories of that encounter…  What kind of memories will our kids have from their early childhood encounters with mathematics? If we can translate poetry, why cannot we translate mathematics so the general public will be able to understand and appreciate it? I think there are two reasons. First, not everybody can do the job Pasternak did and secondly, you have to have the people who will be the messengers of this beauty… If I didn’t have parents who bought the books and brought them home and read them with me, the teachers who were excited about Shakespeare and the friends who could recite poems, I probably would not have had any interest in this poet or his poetry… What is the relevance – he lived in a far away land many centuries ago…?  Would my life have been any worse because of that? I think yes, but each one of us has to answer this questions for him or herself. So what is your answer about mathematics education…?

3 Responses to Teaching Mathematics in Canada…

  1. Marina Milner-Bolotin

    ON BEHALF OF ERICA WILLIAMS (A BC SCIENCE and MATHEMATICS EDUCATOR with decades of teaching experience):

    Like you Marina, I grew up with the encouragement, directly and indirectly, to become an independent learner curious about different aspects of the world around me. My stepfather had a triple engineering degree, my mother left school early but taught herself German and how to play the piano. However my stepfather was a bully towards me but that taught me to become independent and strive to do well because even at a young age I knew that would give the skills to escape. I learned to see the world though a series of broad interrelated lenses reading Edward de Bono’s books on lateral thinking in my late teens. I stayed in the A-stream at the grammar school and was one of the few who ended up going to university getting an honours metallurgy degree. That enabled me to escape to Vancouver where after a couple of false starts I ended up doing research for three and a half years. When the contract ran out I made a career change and became a science educator. In my first year teaching I was told that we did not teach the earth science – it was not as pure as physics, chemistry or even biology. That stimulated me to become the best geoscience educator I could be. So like you I somehow picked up a love of learning, a curiousness about the world and how it works, and the grit to persevere. So how do we develop that grit and many others don’t. How many of us who work in the high schools have actually worked at their subject area in the real world? How many of us cannot make connections, cannot think laterally because they have been trained in little boxes of purity rather than the messiness of connectivity, so we withdraw into our little boxes in our teaching jobs. In middle age while doing an MA at UBC I was asked to teach a few general biology classes to third year future elementary teachers. They made it quite clear to me that they did not want to learn science – they were going into teaching because they liked kids. So I have often asked myself why they were there but have never really come up with an answer – but it has to be a lot deeper than just liking kids. We have to start looking much more laterally as educators, at how the world is this complex entanglement not a series of disconnected theoretical boxes. Our curricula, particularly at the elementary level but also at the secondary level, must be written in language the the learner can understand, it needs to be focussed on community and be seen to be connected to the world around them. At secondary we have to break down the boxes. We have to get students engaged in their work, to want to learn, to understand that learning takes time, will entail false starts and mistakes, do develop the grit to persevere and not give up.

  2. Geoff Dean

    I too had parents who encouraged me in math and science (and in school generally) – my dad was a tank mechanic in WWII who became an engineer with Peterbilt, and my mum was a bookkeeper. I thought I’d be a mechanical engineer too, but 1/2 way through college I got interested in teaching, and since getting my BSc years ago I’ve been teaching math and physics to underprepared college students – and there are a lot of them! It’s a great job, but…

    I agree with all the above comments, and hope the actions necessary to pursue them can be undertaken. And I’m writing specifically to recommend Salman Khan’s recent book (The One World Schoolhouse) to you all. In describing his development of the Khan Academy, he’s really clear about much that our educational institutions (from K-12 and above) could do better: mastery learning, for instance, where students are marked on what they’ve learned, not on how fast they learned it; self-paced learning; and my favorite metaphor, swiss cheese learning, where students are allowed to pass on with great gaps in their knowledge, but, hey, 65% correct is good enough, eh?

    When I first began teaching adult upgrading at Kwantlen (and Douglas before that), we used mastery, self-paced learning; bureaucratic pressures have pushed us away from that, but online learning, with Khan’s Academy as one of many excellent new resources, may allow us to get back to it. We’ll see..

  3. mahi

    Some science fiction is good why some is mediocre, but that’s the same with any area of literature

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