Recently I participated in City Summit 2013, a local community-based effort to connect people and their city in new ways, and in the process, foster a sort of re-imagining of what communities might look like. Keynote speaker, John Perkins, recounted his own personal story growing up as the son of a sharecropper in Mississippi in the 1930’s. Through a series of difficult and painful experiences Perkins became conscious of the racial and social injustices faced by African Americans in Mississippi. These experiences fueled his later involvement in the desegregation of Simpson County schools, as well as his work with the broader civil rights movement.
In his keynote, Perkins described the empowering nature of education:
“Education allows us to subdue our environment rather than be subdued by it.”
The Algebra Project
Robert Moses began working with civil rights activists in 1960, and in 1982 founded the Algebra Project, a foundation committed to establishing quality mathematics education for all children. The aim of this foundation and its current work is to increase access to and understanding of algebra in underserved communities, with the expressed conviction that this understanding has significant impact on students’ social and economic futures.
In discussing Moses’ convictions, UC Berkeley Professor Alan Schoenfeld states:
“Who gets to learn mathematics, and the nature of the mathematics that is learned, are matters of consequence.”
In a 2013 interview, Moses described the pivotal role algebra plays in a society increasingly dependent on technology:
Host: “Talk about algebra and what makes it important in general terms. Is it a skill that needs to be acquired for its own sake, or to give students a framework for thinking about other things in different ways?”
Moses: “The information age…has ushered in a quantitative literacy that has put algebra and logic as a necessary literacy for our democracy.”
KQED interview Bob Moses 2.6.2013
During the 2013 NCTM Annual Meeting held in Denver, CO, Uri Treisman delivered the Iris M. Carl Equity address. His comments called attention to the empowering nature of mathematics education:
“Mathematics is the biggest determinant in upward social and economic mobility. We need to rebuild our education systems so they allow students to advance. Schools are places where we produce citizens with deep commitments to democratic ideals.”
Mathematics as a tool
We use mathematics as a tool to make sense of and understand the world around us. We need mathematics to help put events and trends into perspective, to look rationally and reasonably at aspects of these events that may not be apparent on the surface. Mathematics helps us go deeper.
Common Core Mathematical Practices emphasize critical thinking as students make sense of mathematics, and as teachers work hard to ensure that students learn to solve real world problems. But what kind of problems do we hope they solve? How will students learn to recognize problems that are in need of solving, and from what perspective will they approach these problems?
We want our students to ask important questions: What’s a reasonable wage? What figures might constitute discriminative behavior? Why are certain communities underserved in terms of assets or resources?
The question here is whether it is enough to deliver a rich mathematics instructional program, or whether we should also strive to help students use mathematics in meaningful ways.
Think about some of the enduring concepts students explore during their school study of mathematics:
number , counting, patterns, structure, measurement , data, change , variable, function, statistics
There are, of course, more. Now think about a current issue or problem that needs attention in your local community, city, or state. You may even want to think globally. Here’s the question:
How many of the above concepts are required to think critically about this issue and understand it? Better yet, how many of these would play a role in any sort of solution to this problem?
Could it be that while students have been asking “When will I ever have to use this?” we’ve been giving many of the wrong answers? Rather than listing jobs that require math skills, perhaps we should revoice that question for students:
Oh, you mean “When will your mathematics understanding intersect an opportunity for meaningful change?”
The world needs mathematical thinkers.