I did an ignite talk yesterday!

It was pretty scary. Having to speak in front of that many people, getting introduced by Matt Larson, having to come after all of these people you respect and not getting to control when your slides change. It’s impossible to just not think about the people. If you’re doing one of these, begin by choosing an idea that keeps you up at night. Make sure it’s a good one. You will definitely be nervous, no idea can fix that, but knowing that you are about to say something important will help you push forward. Especially if it is something that needs to be heard, and that won’t get heard any other way. I had a bunch of ideas which boiled down to the talk above, but I thought it would write a little extra about what I might have said if I had more time.

Initially the graph below was going to be my first slide but it’s too complicated. It’d take 3 slides at least to explain what google ngram is (a search of words and phrases in all the books that google has analyzed since 1800), I realized that this might eat too much time to include, but it’s still really interesting;

This graph shows how often the term ‘mathematics test’ appeared in books published in english over the last 200 years. ‘Mathematics test’, and similar terms like ‘math test’, ‘arithmetic test’, and ‘math assessment’ all seem to be non-existent until the mid-1920’s, implying that math tests weren’t part of school math education earlier. This means the engineers who built the railroads, engineered clocks, and laid out cities, were probably taught math without seeing a published ‘mathematics test’. The mathematicians before that time did their work with no one insisting they score a certain percentile on a collection of multiple choice items. It’s quite a contrast to the measuring stick mentality where math is only the test. If the only reason to take math is to prepare for the test that assures successful passage on to the next level, then we’ve turned this beautiful subject into Candy Crush.

What’s worse about this graph is the historical backdrop of the increase in mathematics testing. America was still unsure how all the recently freed slaves were going to integrate in society. At the same time racial hierarchies based on pseudo-science were being adopted by some as a way to reorganize society. This is also around the time that the eugenics movement was gaining prominence. Some of these tests were popular because they affirmed people’s beliefs that some races were better than others. Go read about the guy who made the SAT. These tests have a legacy of assigning privilege to certain racial groups, while making claims to be objective. Tests are probably better now, but given this legacy, and the outcomes, maybe it’s time to explore the idea that the tests might be the problem. However, there is a lot to unpack in the history of testing, and I only had 5 minutes to do this ignite so the ngram got scratched.

Pedagogy has also changed a lot since then. When I looked around for resources about why certainly been influenced by testing, and also by the need for matehematicians to outfit cold war defense contactors. The “traditional” or “Skill and drill” way of teaching that results is pretty sad. Paul Lockhart a lot about this in lockharts lament. It was long enough that it could be an ignite by itself, but just read the first bit if you haven’t.