Math belongs within the sphere of the arts
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 Today, the STEM movement feels outdated.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 …?