This week, our 3rd through 7th graders are going to sit for the New York State math test. This year it is two days of untimed testing — a mix of multiple choice and constructed response in which students have to show their thinking. (Hopefully, it won’t be as time intensive as the ELA test was this year. Very few students completed that test in the 60 – 90 minutes the State predicted.)
While I understand that students need to learn how to take tests successfully in order to gain entry to most professions (from civil servants to MBAs and doctors, many professions require us to pass tests), I regret how these tests force so many away from the true purpose of the discipline. Mathematics isn’t just calculating numbers; it is an approach to problem solving that involves logic, deep understanding of numbers, communication and creative thinking.
Last week, Basia went to hear Eugenia Cheng talk about math and the concept of infinity. One of Dr. Cheng’s goals is to rid the world of math phobia (a goal that is not made easier by math tests.) Below are some excerpts of an email Basia wrote me about the lecture:
“The lecture was greatly enhanced by the way it was shared. Eugenia Cheng discussed the ideas using storytelling, visuals, and even music including singing. She also said a few things about teaching that I feel is worth mentioning here. For example, she talked about the attitude that students have to math. When she taught students majoring in math, she often heard them saying that they like math because it’s easy. In her words, “that’s a shaky idea.” She thinks they felt this way because they were expected to work with concepts they already knew/grasped. Learning, though, is about gaining new knowledge and understanding. Currently, Dr. Cheng is teaching at the Art Institute in Chicago, and she finds that art students often approach math in her class the way it suppose to be approached because they are interested in thinking. Math is about making connections — not really about correct/incorrect answers. As a professor, she teaches her students through storytelling and hands on activities. She tailors the stories to students interests (ex. when she taught math majors she used lots of food stories because they seemed to become more engaged in the lectures). Reflecting upon this, I keep on encountering the idea of teaching as storytelling – it is something I find very enticing, and something that is so human – people of all cultures, as far as we can go back in our history as species seems to engage in storytelling. It’s not easy but it is powerful.”
We continually work to find new and interesting ways to hook students on the magic of mathematics. Games, stories, and puzzles provide an alternative entry point to mathematics that then allow students to apply algorithms, strategies and formula to problems with more confidence and flexibility. In the end, our goal is not to develop students who are calculators, but instead, students who are confident problem solvers and thinkers.