I think about elementary preservice teachers – many arrive in teacher preparation with little mathematics learning after grade 11, many with varying degrees of anxiety for mathematics and teaching mathematics, and with a small appreciation for the beauty, aesthetic, relevance, and structures and syntactics of mathematics. But, many preservice elementary school teachers arrive with degrees and experience in the arts, languages, literature, etc. and so have great experience with playing with language. (I am thinking about what is still often heard in society with a laugh, “oh, I can’t do math!” but not “oh, I can’t read or write”).
What if elementary school curriculum was less about what is perceived as the formal (read algebraic and algorithmic here) presentation (read teaching) of mathematics and more about the exploration and expression of thinking and communication through a mathematical lens? Channeling ideas of
a) definitions of literacy which involve reading, writing, thinking, and problem solving for societal involvement,
b) the English language curriculum that is often called ‘language arts’ as they play with various forms of language expression,
c) elementary school teachers’ more often seen abilities in the arts and languages, and
d) what we know about young children’s play-based learning, learning through the arts, and learning because of creative opportunities and exploration,
can we consider a shift in the elementary curriculum towards a sense of mathematical arts? For example, play with manipulatives; play with digital media; play together; allow and encourage creative expression; make mistakes and be ready to just try it again; learn about various ways of thinking mathematically – geometrically, numerically, statistically, graphically; problem solve because the complexity of the situation suggests it; be interdisciplinary because those kinds of situations/problems/activities can be more engaging…
What if the elementary school curriculum was shifted to be about “mathematical arts” and offer more opportunities for teachers, students, and parents to engage in the learning because it IS engaging according to their ways of thinking. Elementary school mathematical arts could relieve a lot of everyone’s anxiety, and potentially groom the paths through the forest and trees of mathematics so that everyone could enjoy mathematical experiences, and when they are ready, choose different paths into more rigorous areas of mathematical thinking or more creative expressions of life that naturally use mathematical thought.
In 2014, at the CMESG/GCEDM annual meeting, I led an ad-hoc conversation about reconceptualizing elementary school mathematics, and I think the issue and my motivation for thinking this way is still relevant today given the conversation about STEM and STEAM.