Math be­longs within the sphere of the arts

Waterloo Region Record - - ARTS & LIFE - Martin De Groot

Stan­dard­ized test scores have be­come a peren­nial mat­ter of con­cern dur­ing the back-to-school sea­son.

Here in Water­loo Region, stu­dents have been weigh­ing in even lower than the pro­vin­cial av­er­age, which leaves al­most a third of our chil­dren and youth be­low ac­cept­able lev­els of com­pe­tence in read­ing, writ­ing and math.

There are grounds for a cau­tious op­ti­mism: The achieve­ment gap be­tween the re­gional and the prov­ince ap­pears to be nar­row­ing. And the fig­ures for On­tario as a whole have im­proved by al­most 10 per­cent­age points over the last decade or so. Math scores, how­ever, re­main stag­nant.

Math­e­mat­ics is one of the “STEM” dis­ci­plines, along with sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing. This is a con­fig­u­ra­tion that I’ve al­ways as­so­ci­ated with post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion. But now there’s a na­tional ini­tia­tive that wants to ex­tend its rel­e­vance to schools from kinder­garten to Grade 12. It’s called Canada 2067; the aim is to “de­velop an ac­tion plan and a na­tional vi­sion for STEM learn­ing that will en­sure young Cana­di­ans are pre­pared to com­pete, thrive and con­trib­ute in the rapidly chang­ing world of to­mor­row.”

Water­loo is a math town. It has been since the found­ing of the Univer­sity of Water­loo 60 years ago. To­day, the STEM move­ment feels out­dated. It’s a throw­back to days of Sput­nik and the “mis­sile gap,” when tough, manly dis­ci­plines like sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing were be­lieved to be the key to sur­viv­ing the Soviet threat. The com­bi­na­tion sim­ply doesn’t res­onate in the same way any more, and re­pur­pos­ing for 21stcen­tury pur­poses is deny­ing that our world has changed in pro­found ways.

There are many voices that ad­vo­cate a broader ap­proach by adding the arts to the mix: STEM be­comes STEAM. I’m not sure that would solve the prob­lem.

A re­cent so­cial me­dia post from my friend Carolina Pereira Mi­randa comes to mind here. She’s an artist (I met her when she was an ac­tor with MT Space) and an ed­u­ca­tor (she teaches el­e­men­tary school in Cam­bridge). Here’s the quote:

“So when I say the Arts are sa­cred, and they are the cul­mi­nat­ing as­pect of Math­e­mat­ics, I am not kid­ding … [W]e should teach Math, yes. But our main goal, should al­ways — with­out any doubt — be beauty. Mu­sic, Dance, Vis­ual Arts — these are Math­e­mat­ics aligned with our ca­pac­ity to ex­press our­selves emo­tion­ally.”

I re­sponded with a “like,” adding that “I’m con­fi­dent there will come a time when teach­ing math will be em­pha­sized so that stu­dents may be­come more ac­com­plished mu­si­cians, dancers, painters and so forth.”

Mean­while, the re­verse is also rel­e­vant. A ques­tion worth ask­ing is: To what ex­tent are low and stag­nant math scores con­nected to re­duc­tions in mu­sic, dance, drama and vis­ual art pro­grams in our schools?

Math­e­mat­ics is crit­i­cal for sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing, cer­tainly. But the proper sphere of math­e­mat­ics as a field of en­deav­our is, as Mi­randa sug­gests, among the arts.

There are no firm bound­aries here; that’s cer­tain. This be­came clear when I checked the Water­loo-Welling­ton area list­ings for Cul­ture Days 2017, which opened yes­ter­day and will con­tinue to­day and to­mor­row.

The cat­e­gories of ac­tiv­i­ties cover the tra­di­tional arts dis­ci­plines — mu­sic, dance, the­atre, vis­ual arts, lit­er­a­ture, spo­ken word. Her­itage, Indige­nous and mul­ti­cul­tural arts are also part of the pic­ture, along with di­verse ar­eas such as com­edy, culi­nary arts, ar­chi­tec­ture, de­sign, new/dig­i­tal me­dia and film or video.

En­gi­neer­ing is rel­e­vant, cer­tainly to ar­chi­tec­ture, as well as other fields. And there isn’t one cat­e­gory where tech­nol­ogy of one kind or an­other doesn’t come into play.

Math too, of course. But my point here is that math­e­mat­ics it­self be­longs on the list. Cul­ture Days, es­pe­cially here in Greater Water­loo, should in­clude col­lec­tive cre­ation, ex­cur­sions, hands-on ac­tiv­i­ties, talks and dis­cus­sion about math­e­mat­ics.

To what ex­tent are low and stag­nant math scores con­nected to re­duc­tions in mu­sic, dance, drama …?

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