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"A Mathematician's Lament” !

~ by Paul Lockhart !

The regret of the math teacher… the student… the process !

Do you agree or disagree with the points made in the article? Why or why not? !

I definitely felt that Lockhart had valid arguments to the way mathematics is being

taught in our schools and how people look at mathematics. I want to highlight a few key points that stood out in the article and some questioning and thoughts that were provoked through them.!

“Everyone knows that something is wrong. The politicians say, “we need higher standards. The schools say, “we need more money and equipment. Educators say one thing, and teachers say another. They are all wrong. The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students.!

Student centred learning… why is it not happening more? How can one test mandate what true achievement is? Politicians should step into a classroom for a longer amount of time than to get sufficient campaigning points. Since when did valuable education have a price tag? When did teachers become so greedy and money hunger to invest in over expensed textbooks and materials that will be outdated almost immediately. I understand I am being extreme and I know that having manipulatives and materials can enhance learning but we are losing touch of what really matters. !

“Mathematics is an art” !

I love art so why is it so difficult for me to make the connection. I understand from the outside looking in but the artist inside me is still not convinced.!

“That’s what math is — wondering, playing, amusing yourself with your imagination.” !

I question where this wondering goes… children have it innately as they enter school systems and seems to get lost. Do education systems that rely too heavily on mandated curriculum and test scores manipulate the way math should be taught and take the pure joy out of mathematics? !

“This rich and fascinating adventure of the imagination has been reduced to a sterile set of facts to be memorized and procedures to be followed.”!

“By concentrating on what, and leaving out why, mathematics is reduced to an empty shell.” !

“Math is not about following directions, it’s about making new directions.” !

Lockhart talks about taking the creative process out and leaving only the results of a procedure when given a formula and told exactly how to follow it. I agree with his philosophy on this, it is important to ensure students understand the “why” and not only “what” happens. I think about how many times I give the formulas/procedures first and students never really understanding why they are using them and can’t re-produce a formula in various situations. It is hard to re-create what math looks like when I have been taught by the book as a student, taught to use a book to teach as an educator and now questioning all and every theory behind the teaching of mathematics. Inquiry based learning in math is inevitable but my argument is where and when does the memorization component come in. When are students ready to for that? !

“The most striking thing about this so-called mathematics curriculum is its rigidity.” !

“The curriculum is obsessed with jargon and nomenclature, seemingly for no other purpose than to provide teachers with something to test students on.” !

“The mathematics curriculum doesn’t need to be reformed, it needs to be scrapped” !

The brutal honesty is great! I agree with Lockhart about the textbooks and the overload of trying to fix the problem with one resource after another and one program or theory after another. It becomes too much of everything and focusing so much on the programming that the learning becomes secondary if at all. I wonder though if curriculum didn’t exist at all what would teaching be like… then I think about the first few years of my teaching when curriculum seemed irrelevant and I was teaching math to students of so many levels it was finding what worked and what they were ready to discover. I am by no means saying I was teaching “quality” math but it was far from rigid and had no order of implementation other than… I guess this concept comes next! Is it possible to have an innate idea of the possibilities of teaching mathematics without curriculum? !

“You don’t need to make math interesting— it’s already more interesting that we can handle!”!

Everyone is so busy trying to glorify math and find a way to connect it to everyday life that thinking beyond our initial reasoning becomes absurd. I am guilty of this, I always think if I can just connect it to real life then it will make sense and students will get it. This is part of my problem with teaching math, I search to make meaning of concepts in

my own life or in reality instead of letting go of my initial reasoning and as Lockhart says “ a relief from daily life”. I end up teaching this to my students, I think a lot of teachers do. We search for “real life” meaning until we’ve exhausted it. I do argue that mathematics in the real world does have a place and holds meaning in a world that students live in and absorb on a daily basis. I think a balance and connection can be made between the real world and beyond.!


“A good problem is something you don’t know how to solve. That’s what makes it a good puzzle, and a good opportunity.” !

“Give your students a good problem, let them struggle and get frustrated.” !

“The main problem with school mathematics is that there are no problems.” !

“Painful and creatively frustrating as it many be, students and their teachers should at all times be engaged in the process.” !

Lol! how great are these quotes! we spoon feed learning to our students. They have not reason to try to solve problems because we don’t present them with problems deep enough to credit their level of thinking. It is so much easier to just do the thinking for the students. Learning in schools today only scratches the surface of a world full of mathematical content but… that gets a comment and mark on the report card! mission accomplished right? !

“Now I’m not saying that math teachers need to be professional mathematicians— far from it. But shouldn’t they at least understand what mathematics is, be good at it, and enjoy doing it? !

This is hard to swallow. I question myself… what business do I have teaching math to students when I am only beginning to learn how to delve into the world of mathematics. How many teachers could read this quote and feel 100% confident that they are fulfilling the needs of their students are confident in their math teaching? I did however come to the conclusion that I am not giving up on myself or my future students. I am far better off knowing that I may not be the best in math or have delivered the best math program for my students or be at the stage to deliver the best math but I am learning! Being open to the possibilities and being able to change and collaborate will enhance my future classroom teaching and who knows… maybe someday I will stand from the roof tops and shout that “I AM GOOD AT MATH!” !

How do the arguments in the article relate (or do not relate) to your own personal experience with math as a student? !

“Why does mathematics education remain stuck in the nineteenth century?”!

I think this quote summarizes my experience in question form!!

When he discusses the impact on high school students and just how boring and RIGID math class is I really felt the frustration come back to when I was in school. I HATED math! I would sit in math class for however long and not understand a thing… go home, cry and then face my tutor for an even longer time to go over the same thing. I would then hopefully have memorized enough of the procedure to pass the next test or have my tutor complete enough of my work to get a passing grade on an assignment. What did I understand? Nothing! I had to complete grade twelve math twice and I am sure I only passed because my father knew the teacher the second time through hockey and he just felt like he couldn’t fail me. Passing with a 50 can only mean one thing! You didn’t really pass! This set the tone for math for me. I was convinced I wasn’t good at it and that was the end of the story. Nobody changed this for me during my own education. Even in teachers college or in observing classrooms. It all seemed the same. There were kids that were good at math and kids that weren’t. I always felt for the students who I thought were like me so instead of guiding them through there own inquiry I would instead make things easier for them by giving them the process and walking them through the math hand in hand. Nobody did this for me so I guess in my mind I wasn’t going to let students feel like me. I was going to help them! Eeeeeek! I’m not helping them become “thinkers”! I will say that the more I have had to teach math the more I understand it. Sometimes the light just goes off, I have an “ah ha” moment and think “wow, it only took 30 years to get that concept I should have learned in grade 5!” Maybe Piaget is on to something… I wonder what my relationship with math would be if I had been exposed to a more experimental learning environment. I guess I also look at my childhood though and math was being taught in the way we played. Games and sports always exposed us to math without realizing it. Could it be that I am better at math than I think I am? I get excited teaching certain concepts now because it made no sense to me once upon a time and now I get it! Maybe that doesn’t quite fit Lockhart’s definition of what teaching math should look like but I think it’s a step in the right direction. I wonder what the future of math holds? I wonder when I have children how I will conceptualize mathematics? Will I impact their view of mathematics? Will the school systems change the way mathematics is taught over the next ten years and I will I be able to reflect on it? In ten years if I come back to this reflection… I wonder what I will think? !