Sunday, January 28, 2007

Research vs. Practice

I just spent a few days in to me foreign environment: mathematics teacher educators' conference. Until few months ago I didn't even know that these things existed and now I know that there is a professional development for professional developers!

I don't think I made this clear so far, but I am in between two worlds right now: mathematics and mathematics education. I feel I'm in a no man's land, and there aren't too many of us hanging out there (or we just don't know each other?). Until a year ago I was a semihappy postdoc working on my own little projects, proving my little lemmas, was happy and felt guilty when I taught. Why semihappy? I guess I didn't feel that my contributions to the field or the world at large would be big enough to justify spending my life picking at the mathematics pie and hanging out with people who think that what they do is earth shattering (especially since most of the time I disagreed). Where I did think I could be more useful was with my teaching. I like to think that I am a pretty good teacher, I certainly love doing it, although I may not see myself in an objective light (see the post and post below, and I plan on revisiting this later). In any event, I taught a course for teachers this past semester, and as I was getting ready for it, I started realizing that I don't really know much about teaching, or methods, or pedagogy, or anything really. I decided I ought to learn and started talking to people over in education. It didn't take me too long to realize that they are more similar to mathematicians than either group would like to admit. It seems to be a widespread opinion, especially in education circles, that mathematicians don't care about teaching. That may be, but I would venture to claim that education faculty do not care about teaching any more than mathematicians do. This may need clarification, apart from the one where I say that I haven't actually conducted any research on this and everything I say are observations only and the samples aren't too huge :)

Educators as well as mathematicians largely think that teaching takes the time away from scholarly work. From the professional development programs that I saw, I can not claim that I am convinced that the benefits for teachers are what is on the education faculty's mind, but rather data that they may collect along the way. There also seem to be a big issue of who teaches content courses. Education stance: people who teach it (a.k.a. mathematicians) know the content, but not in the way that is relevant to teachers, so it should be taught by education people. Mathematics stance: the teachers need to know lots more content than they do, and all they get from them (a.k.a. math educators) is this touchy-feely, hold each other hand and reflect nonsense, and consequently they should never be allowed to teach the content courses. Am I exaggerating? Maybe, but only slightly. So what is is missing in this picture? Could it be conversation ? But who is to start it when everybody is busy with their research??? The obvious answer to me is the people who do not want to do research, but want to practice. If they are diplomatic enough (hmm, guess that rules me out) they could bridge the divide between the two worlds. Mathematicians who are also knowledgeable about results of research by mathematics educators (slight misnomer: mathematics education researchers would be more precise) seem to be a natural choice. So, if you are out there, and are reading this, or know somebody who is, let me know.


Lsquared said...

Hi, I'm pretty much who you're discribing. I have a PhD in Math, and I am stradling the line between math and math ed. I'm in a small university, and I have tenure, and I'm either lazy or overbooked because I haven't done any math research in way too long, but...I know more about math education and math education research than the people in the education department do (though not as much as my math ed colleagues in the math department--the secondary math teaching techniques course is taught out of the math department at my university, and we have two full time people whose degrees are in math ed, not in math math). We have a good relationship with the education department. We teach the math for el ed courses, and the ed department teaches the teaching techniques for el ed courses, but we all teach pretty much the same thing: a mixture of math and pedagogy. It works out pretty good (knock on wood).

I just discovered your blog today, and I love the questions you're asking. Keep it coming.

e said...

Thanks, lsquared. I'll try.

So, you're saying that you have math ed PhD's in the math department? Are there any math ed PhD's in the ed department? Are the pre-service teachers math students or ed students? I mean, which department gives the degree officially? You say there is a good relationship, but is there any coordination and cooperation in terms of course contents? Would that even be needed or desirable? I'm sure I have more questions :) I'm glad you wrote.