My work with the AIMS team began last month after 20 years in public education, first as an elementary teacher and later as a mathematics coach. I have spent a lot of hours in TK-12 classrooms, walking alongside teachers as they explored ways to make their classrooms places where authentic mathematics learning could happen. In all of this work I have come to understand teaching and learning as innately human activities that connect us to one another through conversation.
Conversations happen in many settings. Think about the last time you gathered around the dinner table with friends. One person starts to tell a story. Another friend chimes in. Soon everyone starts nodding and laughing in agreement. Then one person tells a slightly different version of the story, revealing details from a different perspective. Discussion follows. Perhaps the story is revised further. More laughing follows. Then there’s the quiet lull that indicates collaborative satisfaction. The interpretation of a story is negotiated through contributions around the dinner table.
I’m a big fan of Paulo Freire, the notable Brazilian educator and philosopher. Freire was committed to dialogue that affirmed the human construction of meaning. “Dialogue is a way of knowing,” Freire wrote. “Dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s depositing ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be consumed… Because dialogue is an encounter among women and men who name the world, it must not be a situation where some name on behalf of others… Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human.”
Here at the AIMS center we have faith in children. We have faith in their innate, human ability to make and remake, to create and re-create. And we have faith in teachers and their ability to listen to children. Because of this faith, we’re committed to dialogue about how children come to know. Our Early Mathematics Team is particularly interested in how 3-5 year olds develop early counting and number concepts. Much of our work involves conversations with young children–not conversations in which we “deposit” ideas into children, but rather conversations through which we begin to think like children, to seek to understand their approaches, to explore what their mathematical knowledge might be like.
As we spend time in preschool classrooms and observe children interacting within their physical environments, it’s very clear that early learning involves dialogue. We know from our efforts to understand the ideas of Piaget and other constructivists that children learn from dialogue with others. In fact, it has been suggested in this work that interactions with others are among the most frequent causes of learning.
So, let’s engage in conversation. We’ll learn more about each other and ourselves as a result. It is, after all, a very human thing to do.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Myra Bergman Ramos, trans. New York, NY: Continuum.
Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (1995). A dialogue: Culture, language, and race. Harvard Educational Review, 65(3), 377-403.
Von Glasersfeld, E. (1995). Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning. Studies in Mathematics Education Series: 6. Bristol, PA: Falmer Press, Taylor & Francis Inc.