Mutual Exclusivity in Math Education
I am an ENTJ. According to the test created by Isabel Myers and Katherine Briggs, this means that I am Extroverted, iNtuitive, Thinking, and Judging. I first remember receiving this label via the Myers Briggs test when I was 15. I remember resisting the labeling, mainly for the letter J. In my early years, I thought that this J meant that I was judgemental, which is the last thing a teenager wants to hear. I would much rather have received the polar coordinate, P, meaning that I was capable of perceiving, and I began cultivating this skill to overcompensate. Over the past 20 years, I have tried to develop this fourth personality domain in hopes of shifting my personality type to be an ENTP. But, I took the test again last week, and, alas, I am still an ENTJ.
As I settle in on the fact that, at least for me, Myers and Briggs were right about personality descriptors not changing despite time and concerted effort towards changing one’s mental function, I began reflecting on how my personality type, specifically my J-ness, may have impacted my love of mathematics, and encouraged my pursuit of being a math teacher.
Western culture often portrays mathematics as a dichotomy, or two contrasting elements that are defined as mutually exclusive. For many of us, mathematics felt comfortable because of the present duality between right and wrong. I remember as a young mathematician telling my grandfather that I liked math because there was only one right answer to a math problem. This “objective” view of mathematics felt like safety to me, in my J-ness. It made the world look black or white; good or bad; and gave me a sense of up or down.
In the beginning of my teaching career, when I taught students, my J-ness dominated how I viewed their work. When I walked up to a student working on a task or problem, my immediate inclination was to classify it using this dualistic lens of right or wrong. This meant that the language I used to address students sounded like, “Something’s not right here…,” or, “Let’s see where you made your mistake,” or, “Yep! That’s right!”
It wasn’t until about 5 years into my teaching career where my J-ness caught up with me when I met Anna. Anna was a mathemagician. Anna made more math look like magic than anyone I have ever met. When Anna’s hand shot up in class, my heart jumped down into my stomach and into my throat at the same time. You see, Anna’s exuberance in answering the mathematical questions I posed to the class brought on moments of panic because her way of thinking never matched my own. And it wasn’t just that. When I walked up to see how Anna had worked a problem, to me, the problem looked a lot like this:
It often appeared like a tangled web of miracles and magic with mathematical symbols. And the scariest part was her answers were often the same as mine.
One day in class, I remember asking a question and Anna zoomed her hand up. I called on her to respond and she gave an answer that matched my own, only to give a completely different path to the answer. I told her she was wrong. But Anna persisted. She requested authority and asked if she could come to the board and explain her answer. I granted her request, sitting on pins and needles that my lesson plan was shredding away and I was losing control. As Anna explained in all confidence her problem solving strategy, I started to hear something. It sounded like “Ahhhhh. Now I get it” and “Oh. That makes so much sense now.”
Still, my J-ness prevailed. I was like
I started to stand up and take back control of not only my lesson plan, but my LIFE. But the chorus of the class pushed me to pause. A few minutes earlier, the whole class had been like a wild fire of hands and low dispositions with lots of “I don’t get its”. And then, I looked around to see students bopping into their practice problems like
And so, I just stopped and let Anna be the teacher that day.
Slowly, over time and with much concerted effort to learn, that class taught me that my dualistic thinking made me miss the mathematical brilliance of students like Anna, silencing and erasing the curiosity of hundreds of children that I had previously taught. I realize now that viewing mathematics as a mutually exclusive subject excluded my students from experiencing the magic that comes with mathematics, the feeling of joy and awe in seeing their thinking as more than right and wrong. Because I had classified mathematics in this objective way, because of my J-ness, I was incapable of approaching students with curiosity. Without curiosity about their mathematical thinking, their work looked like a jumbled mess of right and wrong moments instead of emerging understandings around new ideas and wonderings.
I now see that our world is far less dualistic than I realized; that there is a gradient to most every system, structure, person, and thing. As an ENTJ, I have to work hard to see this third space, to approach every binary structure with a question instead of judgment so that I can value what, for me, was invisible for such a long time. And slowly, overtime I’ve begun to perceive this third space as where the math magic is happening.
Now when I see student work like this, shared by Viv Watson:
To me, it is more than an example of a REALLY AWESOME RESPONSE. This response presses me into my third space, into the gradient, into the space between to see that mathematics is bigger than what I think. It reminds me to pause on my J-tendency to classify the student’s answer as right or wrong, and be curious about what this student is teaching me about the mutually inclusive world we live in, and how math can help with that.
Written by Lauren Baucom, @LBmathemagician