Friday, 16 January 2015

I've been thinking about...

It's a new year, and the sun is shining. For many people, this is unremarkable.

For those of us living in this long, thin, cloudy and shaky set of islands at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean (Aotearoa/New Zealand), the weather is a frequent topic of conversation. I remark on this because even discussing the weather (or not) is a cultural practice. During last year, we had two guests staying with us (at separate times, from Thailand and China). Both of them commented on how changeable the weather was from day to day, and even during a day (sometimes four seasons in one day). To them, this was a strange experience. In Thailand, the weather is hot: hot and sunny, or hot and rainy. There is little to talk about - there's a rainy/monsoon season and then there's the rest of the time. In Beijing where our guest was from, the weather is similar - hot, or hot and wet.

Our experiences thus cloud how we understand our known world - sorry about the weather pun. I introduce this week's post with this because it directly links to a conversation before class with a few Masters of Teaching and Learning students as we discussed learning mathematics. One said that she loved the way you could find patterns in maths - that once she knew this was possible, it opened up an exciting world for her. Another observed that the way the subject was now taught in primary schools was light-years away from her own experiences. Together we talked about how these examples identified different ways of coming to the learning. I commented that it was a pity my experience of learning mathematics at secondary school was so alienating. I couldn't remember my primary school mathematics learning - I guess it was too long ago last century!

At secondary school, mathematics was an almost complete mystery to me. As a words person, I kept getting hung up on them. I could never understand why I would ever need to know how long it took men to dig a hole, and I certainly never understood how you could turn people into numbers and find an answer to such a question. And I always wanted to know what the words meant in trigonometry and geometry: how did they get there? Why these words and not others? These questions were meaningful to me. However, I never asked them - instinctively, I knew they would never be answered because this class was about numbers, not words, and, because I was in one of the 'clever' classes, I was already supposed to know. Words were never addressed in mathematics, except to name things.

These are all an introduction to my wondering: In a digitally 'on' world, in what ways do secondary school mathematics teachers regularly explore the words of mathematics to help introduce concepts as a means of better connecting with learners whose orientation and world experience is not numbers-based, but words or even images-based? Which mathematics teachers think about the words of mathematics and focus on helping kids understand them? How do these teachers go about this?

Take this pattern from Maori as an example, taken from THIS site:

Other examples could easily be accessible from Islam and the Pacific Island countries. For example, I used Google to find 'mathematical patterns+Islam'  images, and easily found THIS site. Changing it to Pacific Islands and click on an image took me HERE to an exploration of Lapita patterns. Getting into mathematics from real world applications would more likely have hooked me into how the numbers worked as patterns. This may be a fascinating entree to the mathematical world and a great problem-solving task. What do mathematics teacher do to use digital tools (beyond computational tools) in the service of mathematics?

This brings me back to the beginning of this post. In what ways could all teachers, regardless of subject, context or education sector, better use digital means to use culture, prior knowledge and experience to bring learners closer to the kinds of conceptual understanding that matters to those passionate about their subject?

I'm looking forward to your thoughts.

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