It is time for a story about a pig. It’s a true story, and while I have laughed a lot about it since it happened, there are important lessons to learn from it. My purpose in sharing the story is to also share one of those lessons, and how it is important to us at the AIMS Center.
The town was in Mexico, about an hour south of the border, home to about a thousand people doing their best in a very poor area. Those who had jobs made about $10 a day, which was barely enough money to buy food and other basic necessities.
I was working with an organization that was trying to help. Over several years the organization had befriended some families in the town and wanted to do something other than just give money. The idea, which was known to work in third-world countries, was to provide them with a pig to be raised, bred, and ultimately butchered for meat. This project was intended to provide much needed resources in a sustainable, repeatable, and expandable manner.
We learned the important lesson when our efforts failed badly. The pig ended up costing the involved families more than it helped. Between money for feed, cost of building a pen, lack of a nearby pig breeder, cost of butchering, and other unforeseen problems the pig ended up being more of a burden than a blessing. In the end the pig was just sold and the money used to recoup some of the costs. Our failure was so complete that the whole project became a joke in the community.
Why did we fail? We had planned well, thoroughly discussed how the project would work, and assured ourselves that because similar projects worked well elsewhere, our plan would work in Mexico. So, what went wrong? In hindsight it’s obvious: the “we” in our planning never included our friends from Mexico. All our plans involved giving help to people without asking them what kind of help they wanted. So, what’s the connection?
At AIMS, we extensively study the work of Dr. Leslie Steffe, who writes that children should be seen as co-authors of the math curriculum. However, it seems teachers and educational leaders present lessons, write curricula, and pass policies without first seeking to understand what children or their families what they really want or need. As with the pig, it seems that our culture currently sees the gift of mathematics as a burden. Is it any surprise that there is a generally negative view of math?
So what is the solution? How do we “ask” children what they want and need when it comes to mathematics, especially very young students? This is a big question, one I’d like to explore in future posts, and will adopt as the guiding question for myself as I work here at AIMS.