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Canada’s Worst Math Teacher

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle


Pythagorean theorem (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

In my late teens, I was on route to becoming Canada’s worst math teacher.

Whenever I wanted to raise my marks, skip classes, and goof off, I would sign up for another university math class. I found the subject easy and considered it the lazy default when picking courses as an undergrad. I had a habit of doodling all my thoughts and life problems in algebra and even as differential equations. I recall having formulae for how to find a girlfriend, how to stretch my cafeteria credits, and, of course, how to raise my marks while goofing off.

Friends and family who struggle with mathematics want to shove hat pins into my effigy when I tell this story. But I usually share it as the preamble to the above math-teacher confession.

Slowly, but predictably, math filled my course portfolio and made it my major. This forced me to rationalize the choice when obliged to talk about careers or to placate my parents who just wanted me to have some sort of job.

“I’m going to be a math teacher, maybe work in Jamaica for CUSO,” I would say almost believing it.

I did some tutoring and worked as a TA in the math lab at the University of Guelph. It was terrible. The solutions would come to me almost magically, but I could never explain how, particularly to the kind of students who needed tutoring and help in the math lab.

Both tutor and student usually left the sessions confused and wanting relief.

Fortunately for me and for many innocent young Canadians and Jamaicans, other opportunities came my way after graduation and someone else must have assumed the spot as 1973’s worst math teacher.

Still that brief brush with math teaching stuck with me. Ever since, I have been awed by great math teachers and students who endure poor ones, and I have been intrigued by creative math instruction.

One person I would class as a great teacher is Rena Upitis, professor and former Dean of Education at Queen’s University. With a doctorate from Harvard and other imposing achievement in education and psychology, she has amassed a robust research and publication portfolio in her field. But she impresses me most with her range of interests and her ability to engage and bridge them in her teaching techniques. She is a musician, a visual artist, and a diploma-holding Architectural Technologist who lists timber-frame carpenter among her professional credentials.

When I met her years ago, her efforts to teach math through art and art through math caught my attention.

“Beauty manifests itself as a sculpture or in the elegance of a mathematical proof,” she said drawing lines between the two.

I was particularly struck by her assertion that young students could absorb mathematical concepts by studying and playing musical instruments. Skilled teachers, she explained, could use music making as a vehicle to talk about basic concepts like patterns, ratios, numbers in series, and fractions and then to explain how those ideas can be usefully transferred to graphs, charts, and symbols.

Searching around the net for references, I note that this idea is well established in the education world today, and it is easy to find tools for teachers online.

I see Rena has moved on to other innovations like invoking her knowledge of architecture and carpentry to enhance the learning experience and applying ecological inclinations to the arts. In all, she and her kind demonstrate the power of linking things that interest our aesthetic side to the intellectual one.

Another person I would include on the list of great math teachers is Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher often credited with delineating the relationship between the sides of a right-angle triangle. Most historians dispute his status as discoverer of the theorem, but many accept that he might have been the best at teaching it.

Instead of beating his disciples with abstract formulae, he evidently showed them that the square of the hypotenuse equaled the sum of the squares of the other two sides by, of all things, using squares; squares drawn in the sand with equal sides coming off the sides of the triangle.

Even as someone inclined to the numbers and algebra, I find the images of Greek islands, sand, and those squares drawn with a stick floating through my head whenever I talk about the Pythagorean technique.

These images were aroused last November talking to my friend Hasan Dweik, Executive Vice-President of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. A professor in polymer science and expert in water chemistry, solid waste management, and environmental technologies, he has lots to occupy his mind and his time. But Hasan always lights up and speaks most enthusiastically when talking about his role as director of the Science Discovery Center and the interactive Mathematics Museum in Palestine.

“I’ve never heard of a mathematics museum,” I said to him, later learning that there are others in the world. “But for some reason, the idea makes me hopeful.”

An entreprise that had been supported by UNESCO, the European Commission, and prestigious Israeli and Italian institutions, the Al-Quds Math Museum teaches Palestinian students, children from refugee camps, and anyone who walks through its door through a very creative, though sometimes humble apparatus. In reading about the museum and searching around, I absorbed the fact that the Pythagorean Theorem not only lent itself to two-dimensional expression, but also to measures of volume and in buckets of water, and I learned that all you need are two hands and an appreciation of the magic of the number 9 to learn multiplication tables.

In a world pocked by difficult circumstance and places with limited resources, I found the Museum’s annual Super Pi Palestine contest most inspiring. The Al-Quds University has been running the annual competition since 2010 on International Pi day (March 14th or 3-14). Like similar recitation events elsewhere, it challenges students to deliver the endless, irrational number Pi to the greatest decimal point possible. Typically, the Palestinian kids go into the many thousands of digits.

With hand-sized computers that outperform humans in all form of mechanical tasks, one might ask why we would encourage children to develop their rote memorizing, reciting, and repeating prowess. But those questions dissolve away when you look at the proud faces of kids competing in the Super Pi contest, see the self-confidence it generates, and listen to them explain what they learn about geometry, the real number system, and our world.

Over the years, I wondered whether I might have functioned as a math teacher had I envisioned things like this or known of techniques like those used by Pythagoras and Professor Upitis.

I also wondered whether I might have fared better in engaging those struggling students at the University of Guelph had I shared the formulae for how to find a girlfriend, how to stretch cafeteria credits, and how to raise marks while goofing off.

But it is kind of late now. So, I am going to satisfy myself with writing blogs about this stuff and with the modest ambition to be Canada’s Best Math Teacher … promoter.

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