Paul Lockhart’s article “A Mathematician’s Lament” speaks of a society where music is treated the way mathematics is currently treated within our school system.  He pleads his case for math to be treated as an art form within society, but specifically within schools. While his plea feels too ambitious within the expectations of society (the 4th grade standardized tests, SATs, Compass, MCATs, LSATs, really any other kind of standardized tests), it is nonetheless a culture of mathematics to which I aspire.

“Mathematics is the art of explanation. If you deny students the opportunity to engage in this activity— to pose their own problems, make their own conjectures and discoveries, to be wrong, to be creatively frustrated, to have an inspiration, and to cobble together their own explanations and proofs— you deny them mathematics itself.”

I feel very fortunate to teach at Essex Street Academy, one of the members of The New York Performance Standards Consortium, where students’ understanding is assessed through a PBAT (project based assessment task) in lieu of the math Regents exam as a high school graduation requirement.  The consortium math rubric consists of the following standards/performance indicators: a. problem solving, b. reasoning and proof, c. communication, d. connections, and e. representation.

In past semesters, problem solving and communication were the two strands I focused on the most for students to become mathematicians* in my classroom.

To explicitly task students with problem solving, I was inspired by Jo Boaler’s aptly named week of inspirational math, and used a similar growing shapes activities by another math teacher from a Consortium school to invite students to, in the words of Paul Lockhart, “cobble together their own explanations and proofs” through the lens of efficient problem solving.

To practice verbal communication of a math topic, my students then participated in student-centered conversations that we call “seminar discussions” at ESA, where the hard work of collaborative sense making of a mathematical text is placed on the students.  The clip below showcases their (nervous to be videotaped) collaborative effort at processing which of the problem solving strategies utilized were the most and least efficient (with a link to transcript here if the sound quality is as terrible as I fear it is).

Seeing their communication and problem solving skills being made explicitly visible in our Pre-Calculus classroom made me wonder how to include opportunities for students to ask their own questions to which apply these skills.  This led to my problem of practice question of: “How might be support all learners to create their own authentic problems to answer using their constructed problem solving methods?”
I already foresee one challenge around the ability to give students individual quality attention allowing them to iterate on their generated questions in addition to guiding them through their problem solving process.
Any tips, suggestions, feedback, questions, ideas – leave them for me in the comments section below!!
*Authentic to the discipline of mathematicians by “playing the whole game” of mathematics at the junior level.