Friday, September 30, 2011

Blinded and silenced by a vision of working mathematically

At the risk of being overly dramatic, I can only say that it's been a "road to Damascus" experience. A realisation that everything I did in the first three terms of my teaching career may have missed the point. That shattering moment when someone shows you something so different, you have to rethink everything. 

You want drama?
Nothing beats a Caravaggio.
The strange thing is the vision was always right there in front of me. My teachers regularly presented the idea, I've read the articles,  I've even written essays about it, but I don't think I truly understood the central truth and importance of the idea. Maybe I had to experience the reality of teaching mathematics long enough before I was ready to see clearly. Fortunately I had a chance to hear the message again, this time from Charles Lovitt at the MANSW 2011 conference earlier this month.

The pivotal moment of clarity came when, after we participated in one of his lessons, Charles Lovitt asked us to consider the question: What does a mathematician actually do?   When you unpack the answer, when you look at what "working mathematically" really is about, it raises so many challenges about our classroom practice. About our emphasis on skills and fluency at the expense of understanding, problem solving and reasoning. It offers us a roadmap to a richer and more rewarding experience for all our students. And the part I like the most: it gives a substantial answer to that student who asks "So how is this going to help me in the future?".  The amazing thing is that the answer was there all along, right at the core of our subject. We just had to see it.  

And so what is the answer? And how does it give us this roadmap to richer and more balanced mathematics lessons? I'm not quite ready to put it into my own words. I leave that to Lovitt and Clarke who gave a recent explanation in "A Designer Speaks". 

These snapshots from Lovitt and Clarke's recent article
on  designing rich and balanced mathematics lessons.
Three weeks later, I'm still reeling from the impact of this presentation - and feeling a little blinded and silenced by the vision. It may take me many years of practice before I can speak in detail about it because I think you have to do it before you can share it.  This blog might be a little quieter for the rest of the year while I try to work it out.  What I do know is that all the things I've been working with and writing about this year - student engagement and motivation, standards based grading, using technology in the classroom, and student voice - are not the most important place for me to focus. They are important, but ultimately it is the degree to which they support working mathematically that matters - and this is what will contribute to the bigger picture, to better life long learning outcomes for my students.

And just to ram the message home, there was that final kick from my Year 9 class, who helped me see that my deeds were not living up to my intentions.  I think I'm ready now to start again.

On the Road to Damascus
Here is a set of resources, in the order I encountered them, which led me to this place on the road when I was struck down:

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