An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 3)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2

I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching about this Inside Out course lately because of a growing dissatisfaction that I’m having about the class and also that some students are expressing.

One of the things I really wanted to do was to create a mathematics class that rehumanizes rather than dehumanizes, and I think that while students are generally feeling very positive about the class, I do feel like I am slipping into prior habits about teaching mathematics.

In previous class sessions, we have been sitting in four groups of 4-5 students and I have been visibly randomly assigning students to the groups for the purpose of having students work with each other and recognize each others’ mathematical talents.

This past Friday, one of my students suggested that we sit in one large circle instead of smaller groups. The result of that was that students generally still worked with the people that they happened to sit next to (there were still about 5 6 clumps of people) but there was also a small number of students who were quicker than the rest in making mathematical connections who were talking across the whole room. That increased interaction added another layer to the small group interactions because it helped to spread ideas faster across the room. It also, however, had the effect of reinforcing a particular kind of mathematical competence in the classroom–the kind where mathematical competence is associated with being quick or fast at getting answers. And, that is something that I’m really trying hard to break away from–I want students to be able to see themselves as being mathematical brilliant in lots of different ways, not just being quick and fast.

I cannot blame this narrow view of mathematical competence on this large circle classroom arrangement. Certainly a lot of it comes from the larger society and the way that many of us learn mathematics in schools–we are taught to value speed and accuracy and to associate that as being smart. But, I also take responsibility in the way that I have been designing the tasks that students are doing.

The materials I’ve been creating for this Introduction to Number Theory are derived from the 2009 Park City Mathematics Institute Teacher Leadership Program morning mathematics class (book version). Because of the mathematical preparation level of the students in the course, I have removed many pieces of the original PCMI course materials so that the main thrust of the work that we’ve been doing has been to tabulate various number-theoretic functions, determining if they are multiplicative or not, and looking for patterns.

The problems in and of themselves, are not group worthy. They can be done by individuals working on their own, and they are presented in numerical order so there is a sense of completing problems in a sequence, one by one. The design of the materials, therefore, reinforces the very thing that I am trying to avoid: a perspective on mathematical competence that values speed and accuracy. Some students in the class get farther along than others in the course, and it’s become clear who those students are. Other students turn to those students for help, which is great, but I don’t see the reverse happening as often.

At the end of each class, I have been spending about 15 minutes in a whole-group discussion in which students share out their mathematical observations and questions, and give gratitude to each other. I was trying to steer students in pointing out the different ways that we all are mathematically competent. Most of the comments lately have been along the lines of “I’m really grateful to XX for explaining YY to me so clearly.”

All of this is really not germane to teaching a course in a prison; this kind of thing happens in math classrooms all around the world. I’m hyper-focused on creating a more humanizing course mainly because I’m teaching in what might be the ultimate dehumanizing environment: a prison. But, the reality is that we need to work toward more rehumanizing classrooms all around the world.

So, what to do? One way to make a classroom more rehumanizing is to listen to your students and find out what they want and need. I did that last Friday by asking them to answer three questions anonymously: (1) What mathematical connections are you still wondering about in this class? (2) What can I (your instructor) do to make this class more awesome? (3) What can you do to make this class more awesome?

Generally, students’ comments about the class were positive. However, there were some comments about the course feeling repetitive (we keep doing the same kind of activity over and over again) and people wondering what the point of this mathematics is. Both of those I will try to address in this Friday’s class. Not sure yet how as it’s only Tuesday. 🙂 Stay tuned.

Another thing that I have heard from students in this facility is that there are other mathematics courses that are being offered by a local community college, but they are often very introductory courses. Some students are ready for and are yearning for more advanced courses. I have inadvertently compounded this problem by adding yet another introductory course (in number theory), because I assumed that there were students who would not be ready to dive more deeply into mathematics. There definitely are students whose mathematical preparation is not sufficient for them to dive as deeply into this course as I originally intended, but then they are others who are ready for this course and more.

I think I will need to be rethink the course a bit. I will probably shift the course material away from the PCMI materials and incorporate other materials related to number theory. I will need to include more practical applications uses of the mathematics that we’re learning. And finally, I think I will need to more explicitly address the idea of mathematical competencies, perhaps by providing a partial list of the ways that students have been mathematically brilliant in the class.

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