Mathematical Thinking: Play and Learning

Mathematical Thinking: The Pattern of all Patterns

images-5Tomorrow I present at the British Council here in Dakar, Senegal.  The subject is the creative ways of approaching mathematics in the classroom.  From the teachers I have had the honour of speaking with thus far in my trip there seems to be a significant challenge in how mathematics can be taught in an engaging and meaningful way that is less theoretical and is more about and of life.

I have said many times before that:

“I believe we are all born with creative capacities but suspect that these creative dispositions become diluted and lost when conditions for creativity are not met.”

Our challenge as educators, as parents and as contributors to children’s learning experiences is to create the right kind of contexts for learning to germinate, grow and evolve.  So how can we do this?

imagesMuch of it depends on how we view mathematics.  Do we see it as a separate subject form science, writing, the arts, geography?  Do we teach the theory of maths and not its application?  Do we consider the outcome more important than the process of arriving at a possible answer?

Fry (2015) challenges us to consider the pattern and nature of mathematics.

“Mathematics is ultimately the study of patterns – predicting phenomena from the weather to the growth of cities, revealing everything from the laws of the universe to the behavior of subatomic particles…

Mathematics is the language of nature. It is the foundation stone upon which every major scientific and technological achievement of the modern era has been built. It is alive, and it is thriving.”

Fry (2015) The Mathematics of Love: Patterns, Proofs, and the Search for the Ultimate Equation

Unknown-1So we can see how Mathematics can be about life here in Senegal.  About how we survive and thrive with patterns and predictions of weather, to population growth in the cities that grow at exponential rates, the maths of engineering, of construction, of building, of tides and ecology. It is inherent in daily life too, the trips we make to the local boutiques, when tabs or monies owed lists are made, in the handling of money for exchange in the market, in the measurements of the street tailor, and the space, patterns and designs in the local cloths and fabrics.…mathematics we could say is part of the woven cloth of everyday life here.

images-1Children’s mathematical thinking originates in the meanings they make in their play.  We can help in this by making their school based mathematical lessons MORE PLAYFUL.  Research backs this claim up.  The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF,2008) in England commissioned a review into mathematics and teaching to find out about the effective learning in mathematics.  It concluded that effective learning in mathematics was:

  • Rooted in playfulness
  • Social in nature

DCSF (2008) Williams Maths Review 

images-3The Williams Math Review reminded us also that the young child’s intrinsic drive to play and learn ‘through play’ was the beginning of ‘messing around’ around with mathematical ideas and creative thinking.  More alarming was that it was usually us as adults who failed to recognise this, or failed to offer an environment where this could take place.  In other words, these thinking dispositions were being diluted and lost because conditions for mathematical and creative thinking were not met.

images-2However there are things that we can do and can take charge of in our own classrooms.  We can look for local materials and situations where mathematical thinking can be explored and played with.  We can set smaller groups of children off on smaller tasks whilst teaching others, we can create caravans of learning experiences giving opportunity for mathematics to be lived and be connected in more contextual and culturally meaningful situations for children.

UnknownWe have dilemmas to face that are not just relevant here in Senegal but are part of a global crisis in education that asks for us not to continue the separation of subjects into distinct and different categories, to stop the over reliance on testing of knowledge and to embrace and create conditions for creativity, innovation and critical thinking to emerge.

Our challenges are:

  • To make the teaching of Mathematics more context and culturally meaningful for Senegal’s children?
  • To re-imagine Senegalese children as rich and competent makers of meaning?
  • To ensure our children are higher order thinkers, that display habits and minds of mathematical thinking?
  • To cross the threshold between the theoretical classroom of yesterday and the concrete and practical classroom of tomorrow?

Therefore, we must for our children create the fruitful conditions for learning in our changing world.  To create contexts that value children’s play with ideas that involve mathematics and combined subjects and images-4dispositions.  We have to change the dominant paradigms that continue to emphasise testing and instruction and that view the child as weak, and empty.   This is not just for children in Dakar, Senegal but a call for revolution in education globally supported by a growing global family.  If we fail, then I fear we will leave our children unprepared for the challenges in our rapidly changing society and economy.  We can make change in our own classrooms, and each small change is an act of humility towards a better place for the children of Senegal.  Together as a community, we can begin to extend those ripples of change and find our supportive partners who wish for the same goals.  The goal being to give the right contexts for learning that enables Senegal children’s to thrive and seek meaning in their cities and places that they live, breathe and play.

Who am I then? Tell me that first! Cried Alice

Screenshot of Alice from the trailer for the f...
Image via Wikipedia

The curious Alice of Wonderland’s cry begs for us to get to know her first before anything else.  At this time of year we too are focused on finding out about our new children and their ways of being in the world yet I am reminded of our use of language that describes what can be a challenging time for young children and families as a time of ‘settling in’.   In the UK, these first few weeks of the new academic year are often referred to as a time to settle and in other contexts, this is sometimes known more as a time of welcoming.

So often, the words we use to describe objects and actions (such as ‘settling in’) can betray the complexity of the situation.  To settle to me often sounds one-sided, it demands that the child fits in to what has been organised for them by us, the need for settling is dictated by our requirements and values and by those set above us.  There are vast differences to the ways and methods that schools and settings approach these times, from an ‘all in’ approach that implies the sooner they are in the better (for whom?) to those that offer a more gradual increment of children.  However we do it, the complexity being is that it is much more than a time of children becoming accustomed to the routines and spaces we have created and much more than establishing a feeling of being comfortable with everything we do and provide for them.  Instead, maybe it should be more of a dynamic dialogue where we consider what makes our children and their families feel like they belong here, are part of here, can see themselves here and can participate here. We may not be in control of how this period is always managed time wise but we can all consider the notion of how we welcome and get to know our children and families in all our different contexts and the ways and contexts that support them to construct and share knowledge (their learning processes).  This is far more complex than identifying their starting point, their base line or their stage of development.

I know that this year I am going to be more alert and conscious of my actions and behaviours during this time of welcoming and getting to know each other.  I can begin by examining the ways in which the children (and their families) build up their relationships with the environment, looking for the hints, the evolutions and traces of their daily encounters and analyse these.  I know that I have been surprised sometimes by the ‘magnetic’ spaces that they inhabit, often in unexpected spaces, the spaces in which children and families are automatically drawn to and those that seem to do the opposite.  My aim therefore will be to become more intentional to the idea of welcome, participation and exchange so that children, families and educators together can embark more collaboratively on the Wonderland of Learning.