Math: It’s not for everyone. But, if you start somewhere else – music, art, literature, politics, social justice, movement, anything – you might just find that math is the answer. You just have to show your work.
And Nenad Radakovic is showing his work – along with that of several other contributors – in the new book Transdisciplinarity in Mathematics Education: Blurring Disciplinary Boundaries. Radakovic coedited the book with a former classmate at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Limin Jao, now of McGill University in Canada.
“Not everyone has the best attitude about math – they don’t see it as anything but numbers – but when you’re starting from your own interests and answering the questions you want answers to, math is much more meaningful and so much less superficial,” says the assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at the College of Charleston. “We found that teachers are more receptive to math when they start seeing how math works not just as an interdisciplinary subject, but as a transdisciplinary subject.”
By that he means something that takes multiple disciplinary perspectives and melds them into one essential intellectual framework.
“The whole idea is to build interest in math for pre-service teachers who are not particularly excited about it. So, the chapters of our book offer different ways to think about how we can use transdisciplinarity in math education: as an approach to interdisciplinary learning, as a path toward the common good, as a bridge with different worldviews,” says Radakovic, who last semester taught the first-year seminar course, Math in Motion: Teaching and Leaning Math Through Movement, Walking, and Sight-Seeing – which included activities like using movement to explore functions and walking downtown to examine mathematical features of buildings and parks. “The world around us is not compartmentalized, and education should not be either. Questions about sustainability and social justice are blurred, and so are educational disciplines.”
Transdisciplinarity in Mathematics Education talks about more than just teaching math through art, music and children’s literature to create a more complex, contextual understanding of mathematics: It posits that math can be used as a tool for solving environmental crises and cultural dissonance – and even transforming perspectives for reconciliations between indigenous communities and the general public.
“When you look at indigenous education in Canada, for example, you have to include what is important in various indigenous communities if you want to teach math – you have to bridge different worldviews with mathematics,” says Radakovic. “That way, you’re not trying to translate math to them, but using their needs as a guide for how to use math. You start with using transdisciplinarity as a way of looking at a more general question, and then think, ‘How can I do that using mathematics?’ This looks very different from the mathematics we learn in school.”
This also looks very different from the other mathematics education books out there.
“The whole point is to start conceptualizing what transdisciplinarity means in math education,” says Radakovic. “One of the most exciting things that has come of this is the idea of, ‘Can you as an editor start building community and start building a conversation?’”
The answer, it turns out, is yes. Radakovic and Jao started the conversation in May 2015, contacting experts in different fields as well as emerging scholars.
“I learned a lot about collaboration,” laughs Radakovic, adding that, in math, there is a term called “productive struggle, which basically means we don’t want students to have an easy time getting to the solution – we want them to learn as they go. I definitely felt like that’s what we got with this book, too. We got to see ideas develop from theoretical essays to developed chapters. You got to see how to solve problems from different perspectives in different fields of study.”
And, because there are so many different fields addressed in the book, it has attracted the attention of not just math education students, but of researchers, educators and practitioners from a myriad of disciplines.
“Different audiences will pick up different chapters, and that allows us to expand to different cultural frameworks,”he says, noting the interest the topic has gotten not just in his roundtable talk at the American Educational Research Association national conference last year, but also on social media outlets like Facebook. “It makes it so much more universal.”
Indeed, as it turns out, math just may be for everyone.