Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What If We Taught Art The Way We Teach Math?

Surveys of American students find that the majority of us feel relatively good about ourselves and mathematics through elementary school, an opinion that takes a sharp nose-dive starting in about middle school and continues in a downward trend through high school. This pretty much tracks with my own experience. I was usually pretty good at figuring it out and aside from a couple clinkers, I tended to bring home A's and B's. I even managed a surprisingly high score on my college entrance SAT test, an achievement I ascribe to my strategic ability at test taking more than any mathematical aptitude, which encouraged me to continue pursuing mathematics coursework through my first couple years at university even though I had no future plans that seemed to call for those higher-level math skills.

But even as I was capable of playing the math "learning" game, I didn't like it. I found it tedious and pointless. When I expressed this opinion around adults I was mostly told, in so many words, that I was wrong. When I shared it with my peers, they mostly agreed it was boring, with the exception of the occasional friend who, was, if not joyful, at least able to take a puzzle-worker's pleasure in ciphering. Those were the friends I chose as homework partners, especially if they were pretty girls, which may at least in part explain why I could keep my grades up while despising the work.

Today, as a preschool teacher, I don't attempt to "teach" math, yet all day long I see children engaged happily in both solitary and collaborative mathematical pursuits through their play. It's quite clear to me that humans, young ones at least, take great pleasure in the organizing, sorting, and patterning that lies at the heart of what we call mathematics. They take great joy in counting, in comparing, and in those eureka moments that come with mathematical discovery. It flows through them as naturally as, say, art. 

So what happens? Is our national "hatred" of math a problem with humans or a problem with how we try to teach it?

One of the most useful parts of attending professional events like the Play Iceland conference from which I recently returned, is the time one spends just shooting the breeze with colleagues. I'm an early riser and while discussing this topic with my new friend Tim over breakfast, he shared a fascinating way of thinking about the problem with math education.

What if we taught art the way we teach math? We start by showing students all the colors, not to play with, but to memorize. Then, after a few years of that, we give them two or three colors and permit them to only paint straight lines over and over until they've mastered them. Then we work on arcs and then other curved lines for a few years. Finally, after many years of this sort of drilling, we move on to shapes where we drill some more. Then comes more repetitive drilling on colors, color mixing, composition, until finally, after many tedious years, the art student, now at a university, is finally permitted to actually create something of his own. Oh, and never, ever take a peek at someone else's paper. It's a ridiculous, backwards idea, but in a very real sense, this is exactly how we attempt to teach math.

I have a good friend who holds degrees in both physics and math. He once told me in frustration, "The problem with math in high school is that they think it's about numbers and memorizing and right answers. There are no right answers in math! It's messy!" You see, for him, math is a blank canvas upon which he can explore, guided by his questions and creativity. This is how I see math being explored by the children in our preschool classroom.

I'm a product of the sort of math education one finds in our schools today: one of rote learning, where you don't get to ask your own questions or express your own creativity. I'm sharply aware of how ignorant I am, but I do know what math is not: it is not algorithms and ciphering, even as that forms the basis of what we call "math education." I do know that math learning can and should be a joyful, fully human experience, one, like art, that is not discrete from the rest of the world, but woven through everything we do, yet we are producing generation after generation of young adults who "hate" math. 

This is not a problem with people or math, it is clearly a problem with how we expect children to learn it.

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MissFifi said...

Great post! This captures the frustrations I have had with math. Not counting the crappy teachers that have ruined numbers for some, but why can't math be taught in a fun and unusual manner? We would have a lot more people understanding and enjoying the subject instead of dreading it all the time. I cant even tell you how many times i have heard a person say they "don't do math" when trying to figure out a tip. We can be better than this and it is high time we treat math better. This coming from someone who hates geometry. Lol

Sandy said...

I couldn't agree more. I teach in the Primary school sector in New Zealand and I think attitudes towards mathematics is fairly similar. About 15 years ago, we introduced "The numeracy project". This was a massive change to how number was taught, as it had been identified that basic number skills such as mastery over the 4 operations was in a steep decline. The approach was to allow students to 'discover' solutions and methods for themselves, through a series of carefully guided and structured lessons, using very particular language. The intent of this was an acknowledgement that there is often more than one way to discover an answer. Play and games were encouraged to solve problems. As your colleague stated, "Maths is messy". Personally, I found a light going on in my own head, and I discovered that actually, I have quite a capacity for working with quite large numbers in my head. Of course parents struggled with supporting their children with this as they only had learned, with varying degrees of success how to complete algorithms.
About the same time that this method was introduced, or certainly shortly after, pressures were put on the system, that meant that the time required to mater any of this was put under serious threat. Unrealistic Standards that had been plucked out of the ether were imposed and basically, all of the potential of this system was negated in one fell swoop. Essentially, it has largely been abandoned in favour of rote learning that has little understanding or other old fashioned methods that led to the general disdain with which we hold mathematics learning. I cannot wait for the pendulum to swing back!

Mark Treadwell said...

I like the analogy!Well done. If you are interested, we have done a distillation of an extensive literature review of how the brain learns - to sum that up Art, Sports science, social sciences the other soft subjects are soft because they are taught well Maths & Science are hard because they are taught extremely poorly. Here is a link where you can download the summary of that research free of charge - all the best with your work with those fortunate kids!

Mark Treadwell www.MarkTreadwell.com/free_download

Marina said...

This is a very important way to think about how we teach Maths. A very similar analogy has been made between the teaching of Music and the teaching of Maths in "A Mathematician's Lament." https://www.maa.org/external_archive/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf

Anonymous said...

See Lockhart's Lament.