The Surprising Depth of Elementary Mathematics

by | Dec 5, 2022

Dr. Robin Wilson

Research often serves as a mode of storytelling. Researchers aim to uncover answers to questions that can help describe our world, and in doing so, by necessity, tell the story of that question and answer. But our individual stories are unique and full of bias, spilling the secrets of what we value, and the stories we tell can have an impact on what our students learn to value.

For Robin Wilson, a Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University, the stories researchers decide to tell have an outsized effect on what the K-12 classroom looks like, and when researchers aren’t cognizant of that fact, it’s tantamount to recklessness. To him, alongside the content of classes, how undergraduate classes are taught is learned by students, and when those students themselves become teachers they will pass on the culture that was ingrained in them.

“The college math classroom sort of sets the stage in a sense for every K-12 pathway.” Explains Robin, discussing the ways he’s noticed how a dominant culture can take hold in academia, and why he is hopeful change is coming.

Robin’s own experience in academia is one he feels lucky to have had. Cal Poly Pomona and UC Davis, two institutions where he’s been a faculty member, both encouraged his interest in K-12 education. But oftentimes, others entering into research institutions aren’t so lucky.

“Entering tenure track positions, you hear a lot of chatter about needing to be careful about taking on things outside of the research agenda because so much of the success in the math research community at the university level is centered around, you know, the research productivity.” He tells me.

But for Robin, and a select group of renegade researchers like him, K-12 math is well worth exploring.

Ed Dubinsky was a groundbreaking research mathematician and math educator who collaborated with a small team of mathematicians at the Algebra Project in the first decade of the 2000s to develop our high school materials. He was an inspiration for Robin. They went on to write a research paper together. Robin learned from people like him, alongside other mathematicians who’ve collaborated with the Algebra Project like Greg Budzban and the late David Henderson. They modeled the idea that one can be a well-respected research mathematician and also make impactful contributions to K-12 education. Having a space for this unique community of researchers Robin attributes to the work of Algebra Project founder, Bob Moses.

The bifurcated path research mathematicians are taking is new. The one Robin took in which one remains involved in the K-12 systems they were brought up in, the path in which Robin carved out community for himself, wasn’t always an option. And the other, the one in which those K-12 systems are largely ignored to focus instead on research productivity, is the more traditional path. That is still the dominant route researchers are taking.

Robin’s journey shows that taking the road less traveled is possible, but the obstacles he encountered along the way are emblematic of systemic issues that pervade throughout the US educational machination.

Robin’s mother was a public school teacher in Sacramento. While she wasn’t a mathematician, she wanted Robin to have the resources and preparation necessary to pursue STEM if he chose, despite the hurdles she knew he would encounter being Black in what is still a predominantly white field.

“I was trying to understand in my high school, which was really diverse and had a large Black and Latino population, why was I the only Black student in these classes? And I don’t remember any other Hispanic or Latino students in these classes with me.” Robin would go on to recall a time his high school counselor condescendingly suggested he retake pre-algebra. Robin had already passed pre-algebra in eighth grade.

He persisted regardless. From his participation in the Math, Engineering, and Science Achievement (MESA) after-school program, to the start of his undergrad years at UC Berkeley, where he partook in professional development under MacArthur Fellowship recipient Uri Treisman, Wilson credits his STEM identity to his mother.

He began his journey as a math researcher when he was recruited as an undergrad to be a teaching assistant in that same Berkeley program.

“That opportunity to teach math to others and help folks that were struggling to understand the subject, I just loved it. And that’s how I decided to pursue math as a degree, and math teaching as a career path. And it was actually while I was in the program that there was a visit from the Algebra Project.”

Years later, now at UC Davis, Robin would have another experience with the Algebra Project, this one setting up a new trajectory in his life. Bob Moses was doing professional development for teachers and, upon his mom’s invitation, Robin decided to sit in.

“He did the Height Chart activity and I remember him, you know, posing the question about evidence for why -1 times -1 equals 1. And I found that just to be really profound and deep. I’d never thought about the depth of elementary school mathematics before.” This would become a theme in Robin’s life as he engaged with more research mathematicians working in K-12 spaces.

“There was David Henderson, who just passed away in December 2018. I asked him, ‘so what kind of math are you thinking about these days, David?’ and this Cornell professor who has this really amazing college-level geometry book that he rewrote for Algebra Project high school students replies, ‘I’m still thinking about two times three and whether it’s two acting on three or three acting on two, there’s just so much there.’ And I was just like, ‘okay, I gotta go think about that one.’”

It occurred to Robin that very few people at the research level of mathematics were considering the depth of K-12 math. And that this notion of K-12 mathematics being irrelevant at the research level was harming graduate classrooms, but thanks to the community he’s found from his friendship with Bob, he has hope.

“You know, I remember Ed Dubinsky saying to me he spent his whole career trying to figure out how to make sense of his two interests: mathematics and social justice. And he had finally found it in the Algebra Project. I saw people that were much older than me that had been grappling with the same kinds of issues that I’ve been grappling with, you know, for decades. That also found this really strong sense of community, and like-minded people and a safe space to think about these issues, to talk about them within the Algebra Project.”

Robin believes research mathematicians have a big role to play in K-12 mathematics, whether they like it or not.

“Mathematicians, from the graduate classroom, have a chance to change the narrative about what and how students should be learning in this K-12 system as well as what things around mathematics our society should really value. And those who choose not to engage with those issues are reinforcing the status quo. I don’t think many have the same sort of equity-focused lens that the Algebra Project and its community does. And I’ve seen that increase over the years and I can’t prove this, but I have a strong hunch that Moses’ book Radical Equations and the Algebra Project movement has made a big impact on the push for equity in math education in general and undergraduate math education in particular. Like, the idea of math as a civil right has almost become a household idea.”

Share This

Share this post with your friends!