A Guilt Trip for Mathematics Education Researchers

I have a bone to pick with the mathematics education community. I suppose my opinion is unfair, and it neglects all sorts of history and context about how discussions of mathematics education have played out in the United States. But I am still a little bit angry, and I still hope to make those who study the teaching and learning of mathematics feel a little bit guilty so that the situation might change.

Here is some basic context. I am a mathematician by training, but an educator by employment. I work in a blended math/math ed/stats department where we all get along well–even the math ed people say so. About five years ago I started experimenting with the Moore Method in my classrooms, and I am now a dedicated practitioner of Inquiry Based Learning. I care about being a competent professional in the classroom, and I know I have a lot to learn. Lately, I have been following Raymond Johnson around the internet, and I appreciate his efforts to share what the mathematics education community has learned. In the last week or so, we have also learned about Jo Boaler’s troubles. And Tim Gowers manages to sound innovative while saying something math ed researchers have known about for a long time. (I don’t mean for that to sound dismissive. Gowers obviously cares, but I find it discouraging that his anecdote and gut feeling is replacing the work of systemic studies conducted by mathematics education researchers.)

Why didn’t you tell me?

It seems that the mathematics education community has learned some Really Big Things about effective instruction. But as a practicing educator, I have to go find those things out for myself, and chasing them down is not easy. In fact, as college professor, I could have a long career blissfully ignorant of any of these things and no one would say anything about it.

Why do I stumble on these things only to find that they have been understood for decades? Why didn’t someone knock on my door and tell me I was doing it wrong?

My basic point is this: If you do research on teaching and learning, you owe it to society to share what you know. Scholarly publication doesn’t count. The mathematics education community talking to itself is a necessary condition for sorting out the truth of things, but it is insufficient for educating the public and for changing practice on a large scale.

If you know that the standard lecture-homework-exam format is much less effective generally than an active, student-centered classroom, then how do you not shout from every rooftop that things have to change?

A Hallway Conversation

I was talking with a good friend and colleague about this issue earlier in the week. I picked her because she is a mathematics education researcher, and because she has heard me swear enough times to not be bothered by it anymore. Our conversation had the additional context of discussing instruction at the college level.

Her first responses were these:

  1. Mathematicians don’t want to hear it.
  2. The big power differential between math and mathed faculty gets in the way.

I countered with some more swearing. Suitably cleaned up, I think I said this:

  1. What matters more, “want to” or “need to”? Are you really going to let systemic bad practice go on? At best this sounds timid and an worst it sounds lazy.
  2. I understand that in a university setting many mathematicians are arrogant and dismissive of education research. But you won’t change any minds unless you challenge this. Certainly mathematicians hold more institutional power. But are you just going to cede the ground? Power unchallenged only becomes more entrenched.

It seems that one way to change some minds might be to very loudly engage in public debate.

What I Would Like to See

Let’s have a real large-scale conversation. Let’s get education researchers out into the public spotlight to share what they know about effective instruction. Let’s start to inform the wider public.

Perhaps, the mathematics education community could write more surveys of its generally accepted findings and broadcast this information as a guide to instructional practice. Maybe another approach would be more effective.

Let My Re-education Begin

This is the third version of this post. I still don’t like it, but it at least starts a conversation I wish to have. So, feel free to correct me in the comments.

I welcome your ideas and opinions.