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Field MathEd Forum – A Book Talk on Vital Directions in Math Education

Field MathEd Forum – A Book Talk on Vital Directions in Math Education

New Feature: Live Stream

This month, I attended the Fields Math Education Forum remotely using the live stream that was made available for the first time last month. It worked great – I wish it had been implemented years ago! Of course, visiting the Fields Institute in person is wonderful and the community is terrific, but if you are unable to visit the Fields Institute in person I definitely recommend the live stream. The stream shows both the speakers on stage, and the slides being shown, which was great.

The Fields Mathematics Education Forum meeting this month was a Book Talk about Vital Directions in Mathematics Education (2013). Each speaker at the Forum took on a chapter from the book to discuss with attendees.

What is Canada doing right?

Christine Suurtamm made the excellent point that it is worth examining not only what is not working in math education in Canada, but also what is working. During Pasi Sahlberg’s talk at the ICSEI this year is Glasgow, Suurtamm saw a graph of PISA results which linked student achievement and equity within each country.

The upper right corner of the graph (where achievement and equity were both high was referred to as “heaven” by the Sahlberg. In that group, you can see Finland, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Estonia, and Canada. She also spoke of a Fullbright scholar who was sent to Canada to find what the Canadian education system was doing “right”. It seems very worthwhile to examine not only where we need to improve our education system, but also what we are doing that is working. Clearly, there are some things that we are doing that are working, and the work of improving the educational system will require not only fixing or abandoning that which is not working, but also retaining that which is working. I find that this is a perspective that is over looked too often in the dialogue surrounding mathematics education. The Importance (?) of Teacher Qualifications Gord Doctorow and Iain Brodie remarked that the judgement of a teacher’s skill seems to be too focussed on credentials, and not enough on student outcomes. As a corollary, teacher improvement can tend to equate with sending a teacher for more certifications (such as AQ), which doesn’t necessarily lead to improvements in practise.

This reminded me of a previous math ed forum about changing the B.Ed. program in Ontario from 1 year to 2 years – it was noted at that time that math knowledge was necessary, but clearly not sufficient, for good math teachers.

Intellectual Need

Peter Taylor’s talk centered around Intellectual Need – an impulse to exercise our intellect as we exercise our muscles. Taylor remarked on two particular statements made by Guershon Harel, the author of this chapter: first, that we are born with an innate need to develop our intellect; and second, that “problem solving is not just a goal, but also the means – and the only means – for learning mathematics”. These two statements lead one to the realization that the material that students are given in math class does not address their need to develop their intellect – in Taylor’s words, they are not nourishing enough. It is not that students lack motivation to learn, but rather that the material does not satisfy their innate intellectual needs.

Formulation and Formalization

In his chapter, Guershon Harel says that there are two components to communication – formulation and formalization – and that the second form is often too prominent in math education. The natural course is for formulation to lead to the need for formalization. This reminds me strongly of Dan Meyer’s TED talk in which he talked about how many math problems take an interesting problem, but break it up into small steps for the student which make it uninteresting. In his talk, Meyer uses the problem below, taken from a textbook:

In this problem, you can see that the formalization is immediately given to the student: the different sections are labelled, a grid system is drawn out with measurements, and steps to find the answer are explicitly stated. Meyer argues the same point as Harel does – that if this was all stripped away, the student would be naturally drawn to formalization through their discussion (formulation) of the problem.

All in all, it was a very engaging forum meeting. I feel quite fortunate that I was able to attend it remotely using the new live stream! The next forum meeting will be on April 2.


Fields Mathematics Education Forum (@FieldsMathEd) Vital Directions for Mathematics Education Research (2013) Dan Meyer: Math class needs a makeover (2010, March) Pasi Sahlberg. Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational changes in Finland? (2014)

February 26, 2016