Les (Steffe) is More

I am very excited that Dr. Leslie P. Steffe is going to be the speaker at this month’s AIMS colloquia on January 22. The Research Division of the AIMS Center has chosen to deeply study Dr. Steffe’s work so that we can share it with teachers here in the Central San Joaquin Valley. While Dr. Steffe has visited the AIMS Center before, I still somehow find myself giddy with excitement about him directly sharing his work with our community.

I’m excited about Dr. Steffe’s visit because of the man that he is and the work that he has done. While he began his career as a secondary school mathematics teacher, most of his professional life has been spent in the arena of mathematics education research. Surprisingly, he did not spend his time researching secondary students or university students and their mathematics, but rather pursued an interest in how young children learn. He has worked with elementary children (and some four-year-olds) since the mid-1960s. This means that he obviously has lots to share about how children learn, but what’s most exciting to me is the passion that he exudes and the curiosity that he maintains about how children learn.

His love for students is contagious. His respect for students is unquestionable. Over the past two years I have had many opportunities to speak with Dr. Steffe either in person or via email and am always challenged to think less about myself and more about the students. He has a kind and gentle spirit that becomes pronounced when he sits before a young student and discusses their mathematics. He is curious and affirming. He is gentle and yet he is relentless in his pursuit of understanding their point of view.

Dr. Steffe has taught me to look at mathematics through the eyes of the student. He challenges me to know the student’s mathematics deeply enough that I can, for all practical purposes, predict just how that child might respond to the given task. What’s more, I can also understand something about why the child responded the way she did and what we could possibly do together that would deepen her understanding of the situation. This is different than the way I often thought of teaching.

I have taught junior high, high school, community college, and university mathematics. Most of the courses that I taught were somehow related to algebra. The courses were either preparing a student for algebra, introducing algebraic concepts, or building on the algebra that they already “knew.” I thoroughly enjoyed these topics and was overjoyed when students exhibited some satisfaction at their abilities or some additional curiosity about the mathematics. Strangely, it was clearly the algebra that had students baffled and confused. But I didn’t always realize that.

While it has not always been easy to make sense of all of the findings and observations contained with in Dr. Steffe’s work, I have gained a deep appreciation for the role of counting in a student’s development of number. Number is a rich and sophisticated topic that has often been oversimplified in the typical classroom curriculum. Hindsight is 20/20. I often reflect on my years of teaching and view them through the lens of the new information I have about children’s construction of number. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that more than half of all of my students lacked a rich understanding of our number sequence. Over and over again I think of the students who were unable to make sense of addition, multiplication, and equations because of an inability to abstract the concept of number. Had I, and their other teachers, been more aware of the types of experiences that students required to develop this concept of number, I believe – no, I know – that mathematics would have been a much more pleasant and successful topic for them.

I hope that you will join us in the Richard Thiessen Conference Center (WEC 114) on the campus of Fresno Pacific University on January 22, 2018 from 4:30 – 6:00 PM. You can also follow our Facebook Page to watch for the accompanying live-stream. Come hear about children’s mathematics from “the man himself.” If you teach, bring a colleague, and I promise that you will be inspired and will have plenty to discuss in the days that follow.

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