Terra Incognita: An exploration into math inquiry

Antique map 53

(Photo courtesy of:  Changhua Coast Conservation Action)

I haven’t been teaching for very long, but for as long as I have been teaching (10 years), literacy has been the focus of the school board I have worked in.  Owing to this important and sustained focus on literacy, a level of organizational sustainability has been achieved with respect to literacy, specifically as it pertains to pedagogy.  So much so, that a push to achieve similar results in mathematics has become a growing trend in the school I work at and the network of schools, my school belongs to.

On a large scale, implementation of math inquiry is uncharted territories – Terra Incognita – as the early map makers called it.  These uncharted territories were often depicted being inhabited by fantastical sea monsters or dragons, as made popular by the Lennox Globe and the inscription “Here be Dragons” that describe these mysterious areas.  The anxiety of traveling over uncharted territories is evident, but doing so over a terrain such as math, which has its own palpable anxieties related to it, can be unsettling to many.

The thing with uncharted areas is that, if one person made it through, no matter how efficient, good, bad, or indifferent…that often became THE path to follow because, “Hey they survived, and there is nothing wrong with them.”  This can be similarly said of math instruction.  As I reflect back to my early teaching days, I realize now that I often replicated the same outdated methods, practices, and tools that were already out of sync with my needs of tomorrow, when I was a student.  Let alone the needs of my students as I helped to prepare them for their tomorrow.

This is a feeling that I believe may be shared by other teachers and parents.  It can be particularly evident in the way certain die-hard math ‘hallmarks’ of believed math mastery are defended such as the long division algorithm, or the “Dracula Must Suck Blood” method of long division.  Fortunately, this is not shared by our students.  Do I then, not owe it to them as an education professional to provide opportunity for students to walk a wider path on their journey through mathematics?  Why should I force students onto narrow (algorithm) paths that blinker all the wonderful surrounding scenery of the mathematics landscape as Fosnot and Dolk describe?

In a previous blog post, I listed several lessons I have learned as I made my way through murky inquiry waters.  The first lesson I shared was that:  “Inquiry seems difficult.  Until you start.”  Perhaps I should have included the word “very” to the first sentence.  This is why I blog.  On one hand I want to help share my experiences, my dos and don’ts, as it were in hopes that it might make the task of engaging in math inquiry, just a bit easier for others.  On the other hand I in turn hope to receive nudges on to a better math inquiry path by others who are traveling with me; whether in front, beside or just starting.

Terra Incognita…here be dragons…

Let’s work together to shed more light upon these uncharted math areas.

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