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Tips on global math education offered by speaker

by Scott Brinckerhoff - September 19, 2005

He has helped educators around the world develop programs for teaching math more successfully to young people.

Wednesday, Ohio State math professor Herbert Clemens offered some tips and insights to a group of UConn faculty at Konover Auditorium.

Clemens, whose specialty is algebraic geometry, said he has a passion for improving the way math is taught to young people worldwide, in part because it is a human rights issue.

His presentation was the first in a series examining human rights and globalization issues, and the first event in a series celebrating the Dodd Center’s 10th anniversary.

To tie mathematics to human rights, Clemens, who is secretary/treasurer of the Commission for Development and Exchanges of the International Mathematical Union and chairs the IMU’s recently created Developing Countries Strategy Group, noted that the United Nations and other international organizations want universal primary education to be part of life everywhere.

“There is a social mandate to give a quality education to all,” he said. “After the Industrial Revolution, reading literacy was emphasized, and now it’s math education. To participate [in contemporary global society], you’ve got to have it. If you are denied math education, you are being denied human rights.”

Because math causes anxiety in some students, teachers need to develop new ways to teach an ancient subject. One way, Clemens suggested, is to take an elegant equation and convert it to language.

“What is the math asking?” he said, pointing to an equation involving fractions consisting of sevenths and quarters. “It’s asking how many quarters there are in 5/7ths.” He then went through a series of slides demonstrating how the equation could be parsed in a number of ways, and concluded, “We’re really asking what the definition of ‘1’ is.”

In another example, he showed how a simple exercise involving temperatures in such mythical locations as east, west, and “downtown” Storrs could be used on a simple level to teach basic math principles to elementary school students and then later, in a more complex form, to illustrate spatial and symbolic reasoning to graduate students.

Clemens, who also taught for years at the University of Utah, became interested in mathematics in Chile while a member of the Peace Corps there.

He helped create advanced graduate-level mathematical education and research programs in Chile and, during the regime of the military dictator Augusto Pinochet, put himself at significant personal risk to run an “underground railroad” that allowed activist students to leave the country and go to Europe or the United States.

As countries ramp up to improve education, there are stresses, he added.

“Imagine in the United States tripling the size of your elementary school community in three years, as some African countries are doing,” he said.

In the United States, he suggested, math teachers often are drawn into political arguments – such as the appropriate use of calculators in school – that are best left to administrators and the public.

“My advice is, if you’re a math teacher, stick to the math,” Clemens said.

“There’s a line I think we often overstep. We should seek shared purpose and see ourselves as professional partners with administrators and the public. They have to frame the role for us.”

Clemens lamented the fact that math training for future elementary school teachers is often scant, sometimes consisting of a single course.

“We don’t think enough about how we train these teachers,” he said. “Often, there is no mandated math course for them. This is not good.”

Standards for math education among the 50 states are “all over the place,” he added.

Clemens encouraged his audience to seek opportunities to build math teaching opportunities abroad, while also expanding their own horizons. “Go to learn from local colleagues, not to tell them what to do,” he said.

He offered websites and resources for finding international projects to explore, and also urged his colleagues to build relationships with international graduate students.

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