On Mathematical Creativity II

Continued from last week….

Content is subordinate to engagement. Again, a few paragraphs will not convince you to favor this position if you do not already — but given my own experience as an educator, I stand by it. I am clearly at my best when both my students and myself are thoroughly engaged in the work at hand…those occasional days when students say, “I can’t believe class is over already!” I wish I had more of them.

The waters muddy. Comparatively speaking, it is easy to teach content to pre-service teachers. But teaching them how to engage their students is a challenge.

Of course this is misleading — is there really a “how” when it comes to engagement? There may be many techniques and methods for drawing students in to learning mathematics. But engagement is about relationship. And here we confront a fundamental of the human condition — our profound inability to relate to one another.

Perhaps this is an exaggeration, though I might cite any number of large-scale wars as evidence. In the classroom, the student-teacher relationship is the scaffolding of the learning situation. But I am rather at a loss at what more to say.

Do my students laugh in class? What about the student who spent much of the last exam in tears? And what about the student at the table in the corner who never talks to anyone else? Why won’t that student come to visit my in my office? Why does this particular student always seem angry? depressed? tired? lonely?

We each handle such situations differently. Teaching is idiosyncratic. But how we relate to our students as human beings ultimately creates our classroom. Imagine, if you can, walking into your classroom and being able to instantly capture the individual responses of your students seeing you walk in. How would you feel?

I maintain that it is quite important that students like me as a teacher. I enjoy some moderate success here; I do not think that I am the most popular teacher in my department, but nor am I the least. Students are more likely to be engaged if they enjoy my being in front of the classroom. Of course this is common sense, but a point which I find is downplayed in discussions of curriculum.

Curriculum, pedagogy, content, engagement, relationship. Curriculum can be successfully standardized only to a degree — purposefully vague, but unavoidably so. Here in the US, more colleagues than not (at least among my acquaintances, both at my current and former institutions) are constrained by the curriculum they teach rather than inspired by it. Is it truly a mystery why our students are not engaged? Currently, a curriculum is seen as a sequential list of topics — complete with learning goals and outcomes — together with a nominally meaningful way to assess whether the outcomes have been met. As this list grows, students become superficially exposed to a breadth of topics, but are never given the opportunity to think deeply about any of them. Perhaps this is because it is difficult to measure depth of thought.

Measurement drives curriculum. I need hardly mention the situation in the United States and the infamous No Child Left Behind Act.  Accountability drives assessment. Of course measurement and assessment need not be the same, but in practice, there is little difference. Simply put, the analysis of the results of standardized assessments is currently the means by which we decide whether our teachers and schools are doing their jobs.

Thus has assessment become political. Parents must be appeased, administrators validated, and legislators satisfied. Of course it is always the children who suffer. By any number of indicators, our educational system is becoming less and less effective. Reasons given for this decline are legion, but there is no need for finger-pointing here.

We imagine that the solution to this dilemma is the ideal curriculum, packaged so that teachers everywhere can deliver the necessary content, with the end result being a sufficiently pleasing number. It matters little what that arbitrary number represents, but that is still what is being sought — a sufficiently high number.

It is as though we were training would-be artists by selecting a certain number of classical works of art, turning them into paint-by-number exercises, and then counting the number of times students cross over the lines. At the very least, a prospective artist should be able to color within the lines! And so, charcoal in hand (due to limited resources, all work is done in shades of gray), artists of the future are ushered out into an unfriendly world.

At university, everything changes. Colored pencils! Perhaps the student of art is amazed for a brief moment. But only until it is time to learn how to teach younger children how to color within the lines. And, of course, create their own paint-by-number exercises for their own students. Now if I just make the lines a little thicker, then more of my students will be able to color within them….

Allow me this poor analogy. Suffice it to say that our educational system does not foster mathematical creativity. The teaching of creativity cannot be standardized, nor can creativity be easily measured (by those who feel so inclined). Thus it has no place in a “curriculum.”

What is required is that we cease to think of education as delivering a curriculum.

So how must we think about education?

I shall certainly disappoint the reader by having no ready answer to this question. Or perhaps not, for any pithy answer would necessarily be glib and certainly be suspicious.

But we might say at least this:  Our classrooms should foster mathematical creativity.  It is a sobering thought to realize that most individuals go through their entire lives without appreciating mathematics as a creative endeavor. I would go further to speculate that most of these think mathematics is nothing more than advanced arithmetic.

The reader will surely be able to supply any number of reasons for why this is the case. Unfortunately, the current legalistic approach to educational reform — an approach centered around standardization, assessment, equity, etc. — only worsens the problem. Such trends essentially serve one purpose: to insulate students from poor teachers. We can no longer guarantee that a student graduating with a teaching degree is competent. Our standards — especially in mathematics — are too low.

Thus the teacher is put on the defensive. Innovation is now suspect, and the impulse toward creativity is dampened. Teach the standard curriculum and have your students pass the standardized tests — or else suffer the very real consequences.

We must get students excited about learning mathematics.  Force-feeding content to unmotivated students simply doesn’t work.

We must get teachers excited about teaching mathematics. The enthusiasm a teacher has for teaching mathematics is communicated to her students.

We must foster creativity in our classrooms. This is not an answer to a particular question, but rather a focusing point for conversation about pedagogy.

We need a paradigm shift in the way we think about curriculum.  As technology develops, the ways students learn and students’ attitudes toward learning change much more rapidly than our teaching strategies do. Yet the current approach toward curriculum emphasizes standardization and homogeneity, when in fact more flexibility is needed. Technology develops more quickly than standards change, so that much of what we teach students to be able to do by hand can be accomplished with a few keystrokes. It may be the case that most students, after they graduate, will rarely perform a mathematical calculation by hand. We simply cannot ignore this sobering fact.

So there is much work to be done. A teacher whose primary focus is to be creative, spontaneous, and engaging in the classroom is a very different teacher than one whose primary focus is to prepare students for a standardized exam. We must radically change the way we train teachers, and we must make teaching a more attractive profession for our especially talented students. We must acknowledge that our current way of thinking about curriculum and pedagogy is not adequate in our technologically advancing world — and find alternate, workable perspectives.

I shall not end with a few hopeful platitudes — frankly, the situation is not really hopeful at all. Education might be about empowering students to create their own Starry Nights, or teaching them to color within the lines of paint-by-number imitations. Which shall it be?

Published by

Vince Matsko

Mathematician, educator, consultant, artist, puzzle designer, programmer, blogger, etc., etc. @cre8math

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