Newsletter 112     Jo Boaler's "Experiencing School Mathematics" and Brown Bags by Lawrence Morales, David Scott and Ellen Yi-Luen Do 11/03


Oh, dear. I’ve done it again. Looked away for a moment and suddenly acquired so many things to report that I can’t do any of them justice. With more coming up, yet even, so I definitely need to gear up and have a shot at it.

For a start, I need to go all the way back to the quarter’s first Brown Bag, because I have a follow-up. Our guest that time, Lani Horn from the College of Education, responded to my plea for some convincing research that documents the impact of constructivism-based teaching by whipping out a copy of Jo Boaler’s “Experiencing School Mathematics” and waving it. I reported at the time that I was planning on acquiring a copy on short order, and you might hear more. Well, here’s the more. I am now most of the way through it, and I find it really exciting. She did a three year heavy-duty study comparing students in two middle schools which were very carefully matched in terms of social and economic status of students, but diametrically opposed in terms of pedagogy. The schools were in England, but, as Alan Schoenfeld points out in his introduction to the current edition, they could just as well be anywhere in America – aside from occasional lovely phrases like “It used to be my first thought in maths class was who to chuck something at”. That comment was made in the progressive school, and indeed there clearly was a certain amount of apparent chaos throughout, but it had to do with student autonomy and the open-endedness of the school’s project-based teaching. In the traditional school, very little was chucked, quiet reigned, and during the unvarying lecture-and-drill class times, heads nodded and pencils moved. Brains, on the other hand, did not. Beautifully extreme examples in both cases – and beautifully clear outcomes. Even on the standardized test at the end of middle school, preparation for which at the traditional school was long and arduous and at the project-based school was downright slipshod, the results generally favored the progressive school. On issues like attitude toward mathematics and toward their own mathematical capacity, the contrast becomes dramatic. And for me, perhaps the most dramatic (so far – I haven’t finished yet!) is her line of questioning about how useful what they have learned in math class is outside of school. At the traditional school, the response was in effect “You’ve got to be kidding!” At the other, most felt that it was indeed useful, best expressed by one student’s: ”It’s more the thinking side to sort of look at everything you’ve got and think about how to solve it.” Me, I call that doggoned impressive!

Onward to two more Brown bags. The first was Lawrence Morales from Seattle Central Community College. Acting on a tip from a colleague, I asked him to come talk to us about his Math 107 course – and boy! was that tip a winner! Math 107, at SCCC as at UW, is a course designed for liberal arts majors – a terminal course (please, can somebody come up with a better title?) whose content can be determined by what the instructor feels the students need rather than by the needs of the next course up the pike. The version Lawrence periodically teaches focuses on history of mathematics, emphasizing that mathematics is a human endeavor. By way of reinforcing this emphasis, each student is responsible for choosing one particular mathematician and doing a project about him/her. By the end of the quarter, the student has created a package consisting of a title page, a birth certificate, a news article on a major contribution to the field by their mathematician (written clearly enough so that their classmates can make sense of it), a news article on a world event that (may have) affected their mathematician, a professional résumé, a letter from their mathematician to a student on how to succeed in mathematics, an obituary, a life quote, a timeline and a bibliography. Along the way they also read each other’s drafts and provide feedback. All in all, a substantial chunk of work. Lawrence brought in some examples which wowed us all. They ranged from a wall hanging that normally decorates his office wall to a “book” on Hypatia with all of its pages charred around the edges. He didn’t bring in the one on which the charring effort apparently got out of hand…

For more details, you can look at his course web page from last spring, http://www.seattlecentral.org/faculty/LMorales/www107/index.html , or at a set of project samples at http://www.seattlecentral.org/faculty/LMorales/www107/scrapbook/samples/index.html -- and I heartily recommend doing so.

Considerably later (what with Veteran’s Day being on a Tuesday) we had our next Brown Bag. This time our guest was David Scott, who got his PhD from UW in what still seems to me the recent past, and has been at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma for a couple of decades. He has concerned himself throughout his career with educational equity – specifically with getting more minority folks into mathematics. His work has ranged from the individual, personal level to co-chairing the MAA committee that oversees the SUMMA (Strengthening Underrepresented Minority Mathematics Achievement) program. He brought an impressively thick tome listing pertinent projects and other efforts around the country. Most notable local one was the science project Kathy Sullivan has been running at Seattle University for a number of years. Official title is Wind, Water and Waves – but it’s known as Splash! It was nice to hear about this variety of things, but it was even nicer simply to listen to someone who has put years of intelligent thought into this terribly important and thoroughly thorny issue.

Owing to a nasty bit of time-slippage, the upcoming event mentioned in paragraph one has just become a recent event instead – but at least I can report it while it is very fresh! This afternoon we had our last Brown Bag of the quarter: Ellen Yi-Luen Do of the Architecture Department gave us a description of her seminar on Visual Thinking and Spatial Reasoning. In fact, better than that, she let us play with some of the toys from the course, so as to illustrate what she does. We began by folding origami units – three each – and putting them together into cute little tetrahedra. A good, playful start. What we would have done next if we had been in her class would have been to attempt to write a verbal description that would enable someone with no experience to carry out the activity. Also good, but decidedly not playful. In fact, extremely challenging, and an excellent example of the kind of skill that is needed in many contexts, and rarely if ever tackled head-on. And so the hour proceeded. We saw puzzles and activities and got to skim through some really neat looking articles and generally had a window on what looks like a really enjoyable and worthwhile class. Last of all she showed us one of the later topics for the class: the creation of pop-ups. She illustrated it with some pop-up books – and will never know how lucky she was to get the one on dragons back from me!

Before you rush out to enroll, I should add that it is not clear when she will be able to give it again – it seems to require some special funding. Meanwhile, though, you can enjoy a lot about it by looking at http://depts.washington.edu/creative/ . Be sure to follow up the links at the top of the page.

That’s it for Brown Bags, and that’s it for my space allotment, so I shall have to make do with a swift tip of my hat to the remaining event: last week five graduate students and I went to the Rainbow Lodge in North Bend for a 24 hour conference on mathematics teaching at the undergraduate level, with special emphases on critical thinking and interdepartmental collaborative teaching. Good topics and great conversations – all in all, decidedly a Good Thing.


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