Deborah Blum in The Best American Science Writing, 2011 (page 184) cites a California Institute of Technology science historian as saying “K-12 science classes in the United States are essentially designed as a filtration system, separating those fit for what he called ‘the priesthood of science’ from the unfit rest of us.”

I believe the same can be said for math classes. Of course, I can assume that math was included in science, but to be very specific about it, math actually seems to be a more severe filter than general science. Today, many science classes involve students in exploration and experimentation and some of the valuable lessons of accurate measurement, recording and analysis. And, some of these activities include the necessity of math. But, when doing math in a vacuum, unrelated to an activity – in essence, the math part of the activity is secondary – the filtering action seems more apparent.

For example, in today’s texts there are typically sections on “applications”. There are even entire texts dedicated to applications and these applications show the students how math is in our everyday activity – sports, statistics, banking, calculating interest, taxes, consumption, measurements of all kinds. And this is fine. But, it’s still done in the context of filtering those who have an aptitude for it from those who don’t because …

Texts still tend to present formulae and algorithms and teachers say “this is how to do it”. In essence, teachers are saying “here’s how to do it” rather than asking “how do you imagine how this can be done?” We don’t ask students to generate their own conception of how to solve the problem, most likely because we believe they can’t or don’t. However, many math researchers of early childhood “math” capability have found that even before entering elementary school, most children are already identifying quantitative relationships, imagining algorithms that help them understand the relationships, verifying that their conception will always work, and subsequently and repeatedly, altering their algorithm if their conceptions don’t work. It’s sort of a fundamental, built-in scientific approach to what’s going on around them. So, having created their own quantitative environment, what happens not only to the environment but also – more critically – their formulating such systems when the teacher, the text, and “schooling” provides the algorithms for them? Who needs to continue exploring the pieces of the puzzle when a solution methodology is already provided? Further, if a student in elementary school proposes a solution differing from the text, is the teacher prepared to explore that proposal to its end and see if indeed it may be worthy of consideration?

When math is taught, it in essence teaches students not to think about the relationships. The tendency – and the pedagogy – is to teach students how __not__ to think about it because we proffer the historically valid rule, procedure, formula or algorithm which allows them to get to the answer in the most efficient way (“rule” will be used from now on to summarize procedures, formula, algorithms, etc.). Why mess around with inefficient or erroneous methods? Just give them the rule and have them practice it. Well, this does two things: first of all, practice doesn’t make perfect, rather perfect practice makes perfect and second, it suppresses what seems to be a natural urge to play with the information presented and explore the quantitative relationships that might be there.

Let’s address the practice concept for a moment. A common phrase touted by math instructors is “math is not a spectator sport” or “you don’t learn math by watching others do it.” There is some validity to this, but there is also the reality that as Yogi Berra commented “you can observe a lot just by watching.” But the question is, what is it that students should be observing? Watching a math instructor use a predetermined rule to solve a pre-established problem and then ask students to mimic this activity may actually work for some students. But, in a broader sense, what is it that we want students to learn when we teach math?

This is not a simple question and doesn’t have a simple answer. Most likely, the answer is to get students to be able to do the indicated calculation or solve the problem. But is that what is intended for them to learn? Should the lesson be about applying a rule or about exploring the quantitative relationship? Rather, it’s establishing a context in which the student can imagine alternative rules and test those rules for reliability and validity. And what are we, as instructors to do, if a student discovers a less efficient but comparably valid rule? Here’s where we run into the range of expectation of the instructor as well as the training and experience of the instructor.

Going back to the premise of math learning as a filter system, it seems reasonable to assume that all students, those who can attain the priesthood and those who can’t, could manage in a system that allows and prompts for exploration, rather than being given the rules. It would still act as a filter system, but the real key is that those not destined for the priesthood would gain a better grasp of quantitative and mathematical relationships. Basically, it is math learning by doing but the “doing” is now differently defined.

Here’s something that happened in class one day. We were just beginning to work with simple equations in an introductory Algebra class. The text approached setting up the equation by making a statement which could be directly translated to an equation. This has become a typical introductory approach. For example, the student is asked “if you take a number, double it and add 1, the result will be 5. What is the number?” The expectation is that the student will write “x”, then double it by writing “2x”, then add 1 by writing “2x + 1” and then showing that 2x + 1 will have a result of 5 by writing the equation 2x + 1 = 5.

As I moved around the room watching and helping students work through this translation, this is what I saw on one student’s paper:

P P P P X The answer is 2.

I asked her how she got 2 as an answer and it went something like this: I knew there were 5 pieces when I got done, so I wrote “P” five times. But since one was added, I had to take one away. So, one of the “Ps” became an “X”. Then, since the number was doubled, I had to take half of it, so half of the 4 “Ps” that are left gave me 2.”

This is perfect logic and a valid way to reason through to the answer. In essence, she saw that the process could be reversed and mapped it. It doesn’t, however, meet the intended goal of

having a student construct and then solve an equation. What is an instructor to do? Consider that in the future, this student might be asked to solve the equation 4 ─ 2(2x + 1) = 3x + 5. Can this equation be solved using this student’s strategy? Yes, but not as efficiently as the traditional equation solving strategy. What happens to this student’s sense of self, sense of algebra and equations, and sense of quantitative relationships if, as an instructor, I have to say “no, that’s not the way to do it.”?

And the issue isn’t only the student; it’s the pedagogy. It seems that the pedagogy is probably more the issue because it doesn’t allow students to try out various strategies and come to the realization that their strategy works for some equations but not all equations. They now have a choice. They can learn several strategies and tailor the strategy to the circumstance, or accept the traditional pedagogy which offers an efficient method for solving equations of all types. It may be contended that if the student builds a library of different strategies for different equations, that it may be a big library and there may be an equation not amenable to one of the strategies. I would reply that a strategy developed and employed by a student is likely to be better remembered, and modified as necessary, than one that is presented and never “owned”.

There are ways of approaching the solution of equations which allow for the type of visual representation that this student used. Further, equations can be solved using objects and images or both; no paper and pencil need be used – at least not at first. All students could be started with this student’s approach and as the equations become more sophisticated, it could be noted that an alternative strategy needs to be used for these more sophisticated types of equations. Starting with their conceptions may well result in their all coming to the conclusion that the most efficient strategy – the classic traditional strategy – is most favorable. However, consider that getting to this point would take more time, yet that time is valuable in establishing students’ capability to imagine alternative methods, compare and contrast them, and conclude which is best. Further consider that when students are taught, for example how to solve systems of equations, texts and instructors teach the substitution and the addition method, and sometimes even matrix and determinants. We bother to do this because, with some examination before plunging into the solution, it may be determined that one method is better than the other, under the circumstance. So, why not allow students to use their methods as well as they work their way through solving the problem?