When math is more than numbers

I originally wrote this in October 2013 as a reflection on a research teaching experience.

It is said that the best lessons and those teachable moments occur when we least expect it. For a math teacher, the teachable moments arise when we as a class can explore the mathematics at a deeper level. Or they happen when we see just how necessary, meaningful, and real mathematics is in our day-to-day lives. 

While assisting at a local school in Columbus, I taught my eighth grade students about exponential functions. I planned this set of lessons with great thought and care. It was no extraordinary series of events, and it certainly did not seem extraordinary to include an example of compound interest as a way of introducing the meaning and form of an exponential function. “You deposit your 245 dollar paycheck into a savings account,” I begin to tell my students. I do not pay much mind to the slightly strange stares I am receiving. “The account has an annual interest rate of two point five percent. This means the bank will reward you with two point five percent of your total after a year of saving it.” Together we start computing how much money the bank would reward us year after year. I dealt with a misconception here and there, and I then directed them to compute on their own the total amount of money after the fourth year. As I moved about the room answering questions, one very bright student stopped me and asked, “Is that real?”

Is that real?

“Is that real?” he asked, wide-eyed and innocent. Is that real? And in this moment I knew how important this particular mathematics would be, could be, and should be in my students’ lives. Do you live in a world in which interest is real? My students do not, and it is through no fault of their own. This very moment was far more than a teachable moment; this is what the theorists are silently shouting about when they tell us to teach for social justice. When students ask us if the math is real, it is not enough to simply say “yes.” The math is not only real but is essential to our functioning in this world, and we will disadvantage our students, our society, and our discipline if we do not make the applications and purpose of the mathematics explicit and meaningful.

Sometimes we want to shout out at the theorists, “what does it mean to teach math for social justice?!” It’s numbers and operations, what could be just or unjust about it? The unfolding history of our country is screaming back that there is more than just a number there. To teach mathematics for social justice is to remember that the goal of education is to prepare informed and thoughtful citizens whom we hope will improve our society just one more step toward true and lasting justice. It means we provide a lens for understanding the world vis-à-vis our various disciplines. It means we do not undermine our discipline by de-contextualizing it. It means we recognize that numbers are representations of ideas, and ideas matter. They matter to people, and people matter. When mathematics became so cold and disconnected, I do not know. But it is our moral, our ethical, our academic responsibility to teach our students that interest is real. 

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When math is more than numbers