What Starbucks has done for coffee and Nike has done for sneakers, Dr. E. Paul Goldenberg wants to do for math education—create a demand for learning based on changing its very image. “Learning has a poor image in the U.S.,” Goldenberg says, “Just turn on your TV to see.”
Goldenberg develops math curricula that engage and excite young students and their teachers, but he thinks that’s not enough. Now he is determined to give math learning an extreme makeover. “If there’s a professor on TV or in a movie, he’s likely to be socially inept with thick glasses, nose in a book, and walking into trees,” he says. “If it’s a math or science professor, add possible insanity or malevolence: the ‘mad scientist.’ That public image hurts education, but I think it is changeable.”
Goldenberg has taught math with his signature wit and wisdom from second-grade through high-school and university classrooms. He joined EDC in 1986 to develop curricula and research the use of software tools; two decades later, he remains energized by his work and inspired by the students and teachers he meets. His team recently completed the Think Math! comprehensive K–5 curriculum, a multi-year NSF-funded program published by School Specialty. He talks about his hopes for the program and his new ground-breaking ideas to “market and sell intellectual curiosity.”
What drew you to EDC?
I had known about EDC as far back as grad school in 1967. Prior to EDC, I would teach for three years in some setting, get exhausted by teaching, do some research for three years, and miss teaching so much that I’d return. I never worked more than three years in one place. Until EDC. I arrived at age 41 in 1986 to direct a subcontracted piece of research from Harvard’s Education Technology Center related to our work developing the Function Analyzer—software which lets kids analyze functions by exploring and manipulating their graphs. This is my 21st year at EDC.
Why do you suppose math education has a bad public image?
In part, math education is a casualty of attitudes towards education in general. We’re a funny society. We no longer see education as a ticket to success the way we used to—the way it’s still valued in other countries like Japan and by many new immigrants to this country. This problem is widespread among assimilated, acculturated Americans, rich and poor. If you’re rich enough, competition over education is more about a “brand” (such as Harvard versus Northeastern) than about the learning; you succeed anyway. And if you’re poor enough, you think you’re doomed anyway and school won’t save you. Pop culture tells us that a few people have mathematical minds and most simply don’t—as if it’s all about genes—and that math is what we won’t understand or like.
How do you think you can create a demand for learning?
We and others are always funded to “fix” education from the “supply side”—curriculum, teachers, technology, administration, policy. But we must also think about the ‘demand side’—the people who accept or reject the changes we propose. A competent surgeon in a well-equipped hospital will not succeed in transplanting even a healthy liver if the body is not ready. The organ—or education reform—gets rejected.
To make change, to build demand for better learning—not a particular curriculum or method or subject, but learning itself—we must learn from marketers, who know that selling requires more than touting what a product does or how it’s built. It is about getting people to want it, or want to be in the same club as others who have it. It is about image. With the pop-culture image school and learning have, no wonder people don’t buy!
What are your hopes for the Think Math! curriculum?
Because teachers are the heart of student learning, we wanted, from the start, to build a program that teachers would find interesting, one that appeals to their adult minds. Because teachers are busy, it needed to be easy to start without extensive professional development, and yet just different enough to spark the curiosity and reawaken the confidence they had as children, so that teachers learn as they teach, learning by doing along with their students. We hope Think Math! will help teachers fall in love with math, because kids fall in love with a subject when they fall in love a person who loves the subject. This dream has been long in the making.
What’s the most satisfying aspect of your work?
I love seeing that moment when people suddenly feel truly smart. That was a lot of the fun of working with kids and teachers using Think Math! and was part of why we developed it. About school subjects, people ask, “When will I ever need this?” but Sudoku puzzles are so popular, they’re sold at the supermarket. Why? Because solving them, unlike going to school, makes people feel smart, and we are evolved to like to feel smart. We don’t have sharp teeth and claws; our adaptation is our brain, and we are built to sharpen it. Creating a curriculum to help teachers and kids see how smart they are and become even smarter is very satisfying. Doing that with a great team and with the potential for national impact is wonderful!
How does EDC support you in your work?
The pride I feel working at this place is amazing. Remember I said I had never stayed in any job more than three years? It’s kind of like that here, as grants end and new things come up and I have a chance to work on new ideas with great colleagues. I don’t have to move away! So I can feel that sense of home and stability and I can remain curious. I do math. I also do art. And I do music. And at EDC, if I suddenly want to work with marketers on the idea of selling intellectual curiosity, I can do that too. I like selling ideas. That’s teaching. EDC makes that possible.