Responding to Criticism from @blaw0013

I wasn’t sure whether to respond to this or not. I want to be the sort of person that gives people stuff to think about, and (just like in the classroom) there’s a point where you have to step back and give people a chance to speak.

But: “deny joy of and access to maths for many”? It’s an interesting criticism, one that I have a lot of thoughts about.

I don’t see micro-skills as denying joy and access to students. And I think it’s partly about seeing joy in maths as something that happens in the abstract versus something that happens in the context of school.

If you think “abstractly” about what joy in math involves, your mind would probably start thinking about the sort of math that is joyous and exciting, the very coolest stuff that math has to offer. You would think of noticing surprising patterns, of unusual theorems, the endorphin release of cracking a puzzle.

Francis Su is the current leading expositor of this side of math, the beautiful, joyous, elegant side:

Pursuing mathematics in this way cultivates the virtues of transcendence and joy.  By joy, I refer to the wonder or awe or delight in the beauty of the created order.  By transcendence, I mean the ability to embrace mystery of it all.  There’s a transcendent joy in experiencing the beauty of mathematics.

If you think abstractly, and ignore the context that students of math actually encounter math in, then you’d look at something like “micro-skills” as just the opposite of all this. And yet I think if you look at the reality of students’ lives (instead of a radical proposal for what students’ lives should be) then I think you can see where joy comes into the picture.

Yesterday I gave students a no-grades quiz in algebra. A student who, I had been told at the start of the year, frequently struggles in math, has been having a lot of success lately. She knew exactly how to handle both of the systems of equations that were on this short quiz, but she got stumped at one of the resulting equations:

$-1.7x = 4.3x + 3.6$

I didn’t know what to say when she got stuck, exactly, but I was fairly confident that this was an example of a micro-skill that she was missing.

She and I agreed that she’d like me to write a little example on the side of her page, so I wrote this:

$-2x = 5x + 7$

[I drew some arrows going down from each side labeled “+2x.”]

$0 = 7x + 7$

My student read the example and then exclaimed (in a way I can only describe as “joyous”), Oh wait, you can make 0 there?!

You can! It’s very cool, and to the mind of a child learning algebra it’s surprising, elegant, beautiful, joyous. This is what I’m talking about — not treating the moments when kids get stuck as “forgettings” or “bugs” in some universal algorithm, and instead thinking of them as opportunities for students to prove mini-theorems, try mini-strategies, learn mini-skills.

And to treat these as moments lacking joy is also to ignore the major impediment to joy in a classroom: feelings of incompetence, worries about status, anxieties about math.

I’m no psychic and my students’ story isn’t mine to tell, but she showed all appearances of being happy and relieved when she understood how to go about solving this problem. How could she experience this, given that she was dealing with the drudgery of a micro-skill? Well, part of it is that (it’s easy to forget) things that are drudgery to teachers are often rich, problematic (in a good way) terrain for students.

But part of it is that these are children in school, surrounded by other children in school. Joy can’t be separated from that social context. Students can’t experience joy if they don’t feel competent, and conversely there is joy in competence. I see this every day.

If, like me, you care both about helping kids experience joy in math and joy from competence in math (hard to separate) then you need to find opportunities in your teaching to do both. The above is how I’m currently thinking, and I’d be interested to read Brian’s take on all this — maybe he and I can find a way to write up a case that illustrates the different choices we’d make in a situation like this. I love the idea of collaborations to resolve differences.

2 thoughts on “Responding to Criticism from @blaw0013”

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