Educating the heart with maths and statistics

February 14, 2017
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(This article was originally published at Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

What has love got to do with maths?

This morning at the Twitter chat for teachers, (#bfc630nz) the discussion question was, How and what will you teach your students about life this year? As I lurked I was impressed at the ideas and ideals expressed by a mixed bunch of teachers from throughout New Zealand. I tweeted:  “I wonder how often maths teachers think about educating the heart. Yet maths affects how people feel so much.”

My teaching philosophy is summed up as “head, heart and hands”. I find the philosophy of constructivism appealing, that people create their own understanding and knowledge through experiences and reflection. I believe that learning is a social activity, and I am discovering that mathematics is a social endeavour. But underpinning it all I am convinced that people need to feel safe. That is where the heart comes in. “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Relationships are vital. I wrote previously about the nature of teaching statistics and mathematics.

Teachers are people

In the culture of NZ Maori, when someone begins to address a group of people, they give a mihi, which is an introductory speech following a given structure. The mihi has the role of placing the person with respect to their mountain, their river, their ancestors. It enables the listeners to know who the person is before they begin to speak about anything else. I am not fluent in te reo, so do not give a mihi in Maori (yet), but I do introduce myself so that listeners know who I am. Learners need to know why I am teaching, and how I feel about the subject and about them. It can feel self-indulgent, thinking surely it is about the subject, not about me. But for many learners the teacher is the subject. Just look at subject choices in high school students and that becomes apparent.

Recently I began studying art at an evening class. I am never a passive learner (and for that reason do feel sympathy for anyone teaching me). Anytime I have the privilege of being a learner, I find myself stepping back and evaluating my responses and thinking of what the teacher has done to evoke these responses. Last week, in the first lesson, the teacher gave no introduction other than her name, and I felt the loss. Art, like maths, is emotionally embedded, and I would have liked to have developed more of a relationship with my teacher, before exposing my vulnerability in my drawing attempts. She did a fine job of reassuring us that all of our attempts were beautiful, but I still would like to know who she is.

Don’t sweeten the broccoli

I suspect that some people believe that maths is a dry, sterile subject, where things are right or wrong. Many worksheets give that impression, with columns of similar problems in black and white, with similarly black and white answers. Some attempt to sweeten the broccoli by adding cartoon characters and using bright colours, but the task remains devoid of adventure and creativity. Now, as a child, I actually liked worksheets, but that is probably because they were easy for me, and I always got them right. I liked the column of little red ticks, and the 100% at the end. They did not challenge me intellectually, but I did not know any better. For many students such worksheets are offputting at best. Worksheets also give a limited view of the nature of mathematics.

I am currently discovering how narrow my perception of mathematics was. We are currently developing mathematical activities for young learners, and I have been reading books about mathematical discoveries. Mathematics is full of creativity and fun and adventure, opinion, multiple approaches, discussion and joy. The mathematics I loved was a poor two-dimensional faded version of the mathematics I am currently discovering.I fear most primary school teachers (and possibly many secondary school maths teachers) have little idea of the full potential of mathematics.

Some high school maths teachers struggle with the New Zealand school statistics curriculum. It is embedded in real-life data and investigations. It is not about calculating a mean or standard deviation, or some horrible algebraic manipulation of formulae. Statistics is about observing and wondering, about asking questions, collecting data, using graphs and summary statistics to make meaning out of the data and reflecting the results back to the original question before heading off on another question. Communication and critical thinking are vital. There are moral, ethical and political aspects to statistics.

Teaching mathematics and statistics is an act of social justice

I cannot express strongly enough that the teaching of mathematics and statistics is a political act. It is a question of social justice. In my PhD thesis work, I found that social deprivation correlated with opportunities to learn mathematics. My thoughts are that there are families where people struggle with literacy, but mostly parents from all walks of life can help their children with reading. However, there are many parents who have negative experiences around mathematics, who feel unable to engage their children in mathematical discussions, let alone help them with mathematics homework. And sadly they often entrench mathematical fatalism. “I was no good at maths, so it isn’t surprising that you are no good at maths.”

Our students need to know that we love them. When you have a class of 800 first year university students it is clearly not possible to build a personal relationship with each student in 24 contact hours. However the key to the ninety and nine is the one. If we show love and respect in our dealings with individuals in the class, if we treat each person as valued, if we take the time to listen and answer questions, the other students will see who we are. They will know that they can ask and be treated well, and they will know that we care. When we put time into working out good ways to explain things, when we experiment with different ways of teaching and assessing, when we smile and look happy to be there – all these things help students to know who we are, and that we care.

As teachers of mathematics and statistics we have daunting influence over the futures of our students. We need to make sure we are empowering out students, and having them feel safe is a good start.




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