Loner Mathematicians

This semester, for the first time in almost a decade, I’m taking a math class with people who are not involved with math education. It’s really bringing me back.

Working in my classroom, I found that having students work in groups was one of the most powerful tools of instruction that I had. This view is supported by research and by experiences I have had, since college, as a learner. There’s nothing that can replace students working through new ideas together — a teacher who already knows the content runs the risk of giving too much away, whereas students working together will (usually) be able to give each other new ideas or questions that provide each other with just the right amount of new information. Even when this doesn’t work perfectly, students get to watch mathematics in action as somebody similar to them in content knowledge works through new ideas.

So, I’ve been living in that bubble. Pretty much everyone I talk to about teaching agrees that group work is an important aspect of mathematics pedagogy, and that math is a collaborative pursuit. Then I go to class one day and hear the graduate student filling in for my professor say, “If you don’t understand this, work it out alone later. Mathematics is something you do by yourself.” (I’m paraphrasing.) He repeated a similar sentiment in the following lecture.

A few days later, I was chatting with a classmate before the professor began, and he spoke about how he liked mathematics so much because it was a solitary pursuit. He said he probably would not be interested in the subject otherwise.

Oh right. I remember now why I hated math class so so so much.

We’re missing out on a lot of great mathematicians. Folks see many people working in math who enjoy working on their own, so they assume that there is a connection between liking math and liking working alone. But! Maybe we see people like that in mathematics because math is taught as an independent pursuit, so most of the people who persevere are those who have an innate preference toward working that way.

Sure, sometimes you need to sit and ponder something on your own, but there’s no reason that math should be so incredibly solitary! If math class were to incorporate more collaborative pedagogy, students who enjoy working with others may be more likely to find success in the field and therefore persevere — if only for the simple fact that they enjoy it more. We may discover strong math ability in people who would traditionally be turned off by the way they see mathematics traditionally being done. Then, beautifully, we have a more diverse group of role models for the next generation.

I won’t even get into the gender stuff this brings up. (Well, maybe just a teaser: young girls are taught how important it is that they orient themselves toward other people and be nice and helpful; how can we expect very many women to break down that expectation or the popular view of math as a solitary endeavor?)

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