Grant Wiggins on Mathematics Education

Grant Wiggins was the keynote speaker last night at the annual “Anja S. Greer Conference on Mathematics, Science and Technology” hosted by Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH. The focus of his talk was mathematics education, and the points that were noteworthy to me included the following:

Increasingly, schools and standards bodies are setting their goal for mathematics education to be the development of good problem solvers. Yet,
– few schools focus their curriculum on problem solving
– nationally, dismal percentages of students can successfully solve problems of types they have been taught to solve, let alone problems they are not familiar with
– a significant percentage of students hate their mathematics courses

We face some big questions that are challenging to answer:
– What is the problem with mathematics education today?
– What are we going to do to address it?
This is the problem that math teachers and curriculum designers must solve.

If students are to be able to solve problems of types they have not necessarily seen before, they need the ability to transfer their knowledge and skills to new domains. Yet, most of mathematics education today focuses on using existing skills within existing domains. Homework and items on tests are generally “exercises” in demonstrating an acquired skill, not so much “problems” which require novel thinking on the part of the student. In fact, students and parents often complain if assessment is based on anything other than variations on what students have already seen.

An analogy can be found in sports: the drills which have been run repeatedly in practice often do not reflect the situations which arise in competition. Yet, students thrive on the challenges presented by competition, and parents do not complain when the opposing team does not line up in the way the coach anticipated yesterday in practice. The current state of high school mathematics education is like four years of practicing for a sport, without ever playing in a real game. The sum of all practice drills does not equal the game – but do we even know what “the game” looks like in mathematics education?

So what are the attributes of the “real problems” that we wish to prepare our students to tackle? Among other potential attributes, they:
– are novel or unfamiliar to the solver
– do not provide sufficient information – some research or assumptions will be needed
– sometimes lead to dead ends – typical approaches may not solve the problem
– often present some ambiguity

All of this leads to the notion that we, as teachers, often do not know what a “real problem” is anymore, as we already know how to solve most (if not all) of the problems we give to our students.

Other current issues include:
– We teach many skills which students are not learning (as shown by test results)
– Students often dislike mathematics because they feel they are bad at it
– Students do not see a purpose to what they are learning in math class
– If we show a student how to do something, we deprive them of an opportunity to learn to “solve a problem” that is before them… we often “teach too much”
– How much time going down a dead end is a good thing? At what point should we re-direct a student, and how?
– What strategies are built into mathematics curricula to help students develop autonomy in problem solving? Many curricula seem to build dependence on the teacher.
– Have schools audited their assessments for rigor and complexity? If they do, they will probably be startled by how low the levels of rigor and complexity turn out to be.

A potential goal for secondary mathematics curricula could be something like: develop students’ abilities to answer rigorous and complex questions of types that they have not seen before, without teacher assistance.

Recommended reading:

By Whit Ford

Math tutor since 1992. Former math teacher, product manager, software developer, research analyst, etc.

1 comment

  1. I thought this was interesting.

    I would just say two things quickly.

    1. People do things they enjoy, which they enjoy because they are good at it. Many hate math because they are not good at it, or do not think they are. If math education could find a way to build confidence and success into math early, it would become less loathed. This is probably not super difficult to accomplish – I can imagine many ways to help in this process.

    2. Problem solving is not a unique skill to mathematics education. Problem solving in math simply utilizes mathematics to solve problems. So, if students are not good problem solvers, math is not solely to blame. City planners need to solve unforeseen problems, with or without math as a tool; floor managers of departments stores need to solve previously unstudied problems, etc.

    I will continue to consider this post,

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