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98. The culture of math teaching December 11, 2011

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Education and Culture.

What is important to learn?

In the USA, math has long been seen as a difficult subject, and often as one that only some people can master. But math, unlike subjects such as philosophy, anthropology, geography, or sometimes foreign languages, is almost always a required course of study both in high school and college in the United States. And quite regularly, many students fail to learn the concepts and formulas that the math courses require. I have been attending a conference this week about new approaches to teaching and learning basic math concepts for under-prepared college students in the USA. The approach we are taking has been inspired in part by some research of Japanese teaching and learning styles, which seemed to the American researcher to be a very innovative approach. Yet the Japanese teachers insisted that their methodology in fact came from the USA.

My thoughts about math and culture lately have come both from my participation in this project and from my husband’s recent career change that is leading him to take more math than he ever thought he’d need. I tend to believe that further study into almost any field is valuable, but algebra seemed to be the subject I had most forgotten and least used over the years since my last course in college algebra. Still, this project intrigued me, and never being one to spurn an intellectual challenge, I became obsessed with one of the sample algebra problems being considered for the course. The problem dealt with creating a formula to describe relationship between decibels of rock music over time and hearing loss. I could graph several different values and understood that there was an exponential relationship here, but I didn’t seem to be able to put this in an equation true for all cases.

Educational systems are cultures, and as such teachers, administrators, students and the larger society make decisions about students should learn and how best to teach it, basing these decisions on values, beliefs and assumptions that are deeply bound to various other aspects of the culture and how it defines and interprets both history and recent experience. Mathematical concepts and numeric relationships are broadly universal, but there is no such universal consensus about when or how to teach math and to whom.

The methodology for teaching math that we are exploring in this group is one that really begs the question: Does everyone really need to take algebra? Determined to refute the idea that some people cannot understand math, this method focuses largely on understanding how the students think. It relies on the belief that students who are pushed to think about real-world problems and to figure out for themselves how they might be solved, and are not just given solutions to memorize, will in fact be able to discover  for themselves various solutions to the problem. The practice of thinking through problems and finding solutions is seen as more valuable to the students in developing their competence with numbers and mathematical concepts.

This seems very much in keeping with current academic culture in the US that embraces “student-centered” learning over “sage on the stage” teaching which is seen as the traditional model. With a basis in “real-world” problems, this method also endorses the value of education that leads to application rather than emphasizing abstract thinking and knowledge for its own sake.

I must admit that I am intrigued with the new approach and more than ready to question the value of traditional algebra and traditional approaches to teaching to try something new with the students who seem to fail repeatedly in math classes. And yet I am sure that my own ability to think logically, grasp concepts and solve problems was also formed soundly by the algebra, geometry, and trigonometry lectures I received in Cuban-accented English, illustrated only with chalk on a board.  What made her such a good math teacher? I have pondered this off an on over the past months since I learned of her death earlier this year. Was it  simply the way she organized and presented the material? Was it somehow helpful that she had to translate her own knowledge into our language? All I know is that anytime I see an algebraic equation, I hear it in my mind in a strong Spanish accent.  And I’m not the only one to do so.

Gracias, doctora. No le olvidaré jamás.



1. Kimberly Love - January 23, 2012

That is an excellent question. Do everyone need to take algebra? I get the question all the time “When am I going to use algebra?” It is a pondering question being a mathematics teacher. I also wanted to know the Japanese concept to teaching and learning math that you were speaking of?


Bettina Hansel - January 24, 2012

Thanks for your comment Kimberly. Please see this video from Catherine Lewis, who spoke at the conference I attended. http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=6912687n

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