This post is part of the Virtual Conference on Mathematical Flavors, and is part of a group thinking about different cultures within mathematics, and how those relate to teaching. Our group draws its initial inspiration from writing by mathematicians that describe different camps and cultures -- from problem solvers and theorists, musicians and artists, explorers, alchemists and wrestlers, to "makers of patterns." Are each of these cultures represented in the math curriculum? Do different teachers emphasize different aspects of mathematics? Are all of these ways of thinking about math useful when thinking about teaching, or are some of them harmful? These are the sorts of questions our group is asking.
I am excited to write a post as part of a group of bloggers thinking about the tension between problem solving and theoretical understanding, among other tensions. Moreover, the benefit of procrastinating and getting terribly behind is that I get to read and respond to some of the other blogs written as part of this group. Michael's post, in which he discusses the reasons that he has moved away from problem solving as a classroom focus, was one that really struck me and prompted me to want to respond. I think that he makes some excellent points about wanting to move away from answer getting as an inherently inequitable and exclusionary practice in which some students race ahead while others are left behind. It's a great read, and I highly recommend you pause here and read his post in full.
The main place where I found myself disagreeing was in the setup, in which problem-solving is positioned diametrically opposed to theory-building, and the two trade off against each other. This, to me, seems like a confusing and artificial construction... both are just questions that we are posing about the world, where perhaps problem-solving takes the form of slightly more specific questions and theory-building is what we call questions that are more general. Joshua Bowman calls out this false dichotomy in his post as well, adding it to the list of polarities like applied vs. theoretical and individual vs. communal and urging for math teachers to value both types of thinking because we just don't know what's going to motivate or interest a particular student and the more variety and ways there are to be hooked into mathematical thinking, the better.
I would say that as teachers, we can't help but be biased towards ways of thinking that are aligned to how we ourselves think and what we value. When I first started teaching, I was very much tapping into my own personal experiences as a math student - the complete disconnect I had felt from math as an intellectual discipline in high school and why I fell in love with math as an undergraduate, thinking for the first time about real (to me) mathematical questions that sparked my curiosity and wonder and ideas that blew my mind and made me want to learn more. I posed problems to my high school students in the way that I would have wanted them posed to me. There were some kids who came along for the ride, but there were also definitely some who were left behind because I was not speaking their language.
Joshua's conscious choice to provide students with many options and potential hooks is a way to move away from this form of me-centered teaching, which can be such a natural trap. He chooses to be agnostic and let students construct knowledge in the way that works for them. I find it interesting that Michael is perhaps doing the same thing, but in a way that purposefully deemphasizes problem-solving because it is such a dominant paradigm in mathematics so that students are exposed to other ways of doing math. The sentiment behind these teacher decisions definitely resonates for me, and I think should be central in teacher preparation and planning for courses - what values are you emphasizing in your classroom structures, teacher moves, and curriculum?
I have certainly seen problem-solving play out in the same troubling ways that Michael referenced in his post - primarily when I have attended math team practice and felt the anxiety I often feel in these types of hyper-competitive-speed-based-publicly-exposed environments. But for me, it isn't problem-solving that's the culprit, but the types of problems that have been posed, the environment in which they are done, and their purpose. For example, I attended PCMI last summer - this is a place where math teachers are solving problems together for hours every day. There is a huge amount of variety in mathematical background knowledge, experience with math teaching, and familiarity with the PCMI style. Yet norms are set and problem sets written in such a way that connections, representations, deep and novel ways of thinking and analyzing, and thoughtful questions are what is valued, resulting in a community that while not quite a mathematical utopia, is pretty damn close. Good problems + clear norms + teacher moves to support norms = learning that aligns to the values of the program and access and motivation for many students.
In my own teaching, I have moved towards student-posed questions and projects as something that more closely matches my values in teaching and moves away from my subjective opinion of what is interesting towards my students' perspectives and interests. I value good problem posing as an opportunity to both pique interest, stimulate thinking, and help students better understand what makes for a good problem so they can move on from problems posed by me to problems they pose themselves. It's much less important to me if the questions they ask are specific (problem-solving) or more general (theory-building) - it's in the asking of questions and seeking to understand and construct the world around them that I see the purpose of my teaching.