Children today, raised on computers and video games, actually think differently than do children of previous generations. This is a challenge to teachers who must understand and engage students who think and reason differently than they did when they went to school. To help bridge that gap, Mark Driscoll, and his team developed Fostering Geometric Thinking, which includes a book, DVD, and toolkit, to better prepare teachers to advance geometric thinking in students in grades 5–10.
Math instruction has changed a lot since Driscoll was in grade school, when algebra and geometry were taught by rote, the calculator had yet to hit the market, and personal computers were on a distant horizon. Still, he loved the science of numbers and the cosmic dance of relationships and patterns enough to pursue a career as a mathematician, earning his doctorate. But fate and the times had other plans for him.
How did you decide to become a math educator and researcher?
I drew a very high draft number in the 1970s lottery, so I was pretty much exempt [from going to war in Vietnam]. I had a strong sense of social obligation, and for me a high draft number wasn’t a free ride. So I created my own service in St. Louis, volunteering as a tutor in the inner-city housing projects. That got me really interested in education.
I started to do some research and got bitten with the notion that things could be done to change the rather archaic ways of schooling in this country. What struck me was that teachers were relying on textbooks and talking at kids. They weren’t empowering kids to solve mathematical problems and develop a meaningful understanding of mathematical ideas and procedures. It was that lack of engagement that I wanted to change. So I helped found an alternative high school for dropouts called Logos in mid-city St. Louis, where I taught for six years.
Why does geometry sometimes take a backseat to algebra in the classroom?
Over a decade ago, a large research study showed that algebra was a crucial gatekeeper for students of all backgrounds. Those who passed algebra went on to college at a much higher rate than other kids. So algebra has been pushed in this country at the expense of geometry. It’s a mistake to emphasize one over the other.
How is geometry relevant to learners raised on video games?
All of mathematics is looking for and building an understanding of patterns and relationships. Algebra looks at numerical relationships and what can be generalized from them. Geometry is more of a visual approach to understanding relationships.
Geometry also tends to invite more dynamic thinking than the rest of mathematics, at least in pre-college mathematics, which is reflected in a lot of the software out there. You can change things dynamically, whether you’re interacting with a Web site or playing a video game. Kids today think differently because of their use of computers and computer games. Kids playing video games learn that if you make one choice, something else happens, while other things stay the same. Similar opportunities lie in a wide range of geometric investigations.
We want kids to think about “if something changes, what stays the same?” in video games as well as in school mathematics. And we want to help teachers pay attention to kids’ different ways of thinking and then create opportunities for them to learn geometry.
You once wrote a skit for A Prairie Home Companion. What about?
Sometime in the 1980s, CBS went up for sale, and Garrison Keillor joked that he was going to buy it. So he held a tongue-in-cheek contest inviting listeners to send in ideas for TV shows. If he chose your idea, he’d give you “all the money in his pocket.” My idea was for a show called Fantasy High School based on Fantasy Island, where you could relive your high school experience as someone cooler or taller or more popular. They made it into a skit and performed it on the radio. I think I got $61 and some change.
What’s your next math project?
We’re working with New York City’s Office of English Language Learners to help close the achievement gap for English learners in math. I’m learning a lot about the challenges faced by learners of English when they’re thrown into a math class, and that’s exciting. It’s a new intellectual challenge and a new opportunity to create models to improve education. EDC is a place where the fires of your mission get stoked.