Monthly Archives: July 2012

A Unified Approach

No matter what our decisions, opinions, or ideas may be, they are always related—consciously or unconsciously—to the way we see the world. It is clear that we break up the world into small pieces, and call these pieces disciplines or sub-disciplines. Furthermore, these small portions of the world are often so sealed off from each other that it is hard from the perspective of each of them to have a sense of the unity they are coming from.

This fragmentation implies a divided and incomplete knowledge of reality. It is understandable that people have had the need to divide the world into small pieces, so that they are able to approach some kind of knowledge of it. However, this increasing division and subdivision of the world, while deepening our knowledge of smaller pieces of the universe, increases the disconnection between the components of that universe. In fact, it is evident that one can be very knowledgeable about a particular field of study, while hardly being able to understand any other field or, more importantly, how our actions within our field of work may affect the rest of the world.  Therefore, the problems that we face as a consequence of this specialized disconnection ought to make us take a look at the multiple pieces of a totality that should be restored some way.

This divided vision is even experienced within a particular discipline. As a matter of fact, it happens in the way we believe mathematics should be taught. For many years now, there has been a controversy between those who endorse teaching mathematics through real-world problems and those who favor an emphasis on basic skills. In my experience teaching mathematics for more than twenty years, I have observed the limitations that overemphasizing either skills or problem-solving brings to a true conceptual understanding—understood as the connection between a problem at hand and a more general theory from which this problem is a particular case. On the one hand, when the emphasis is only on skills, a mechanical approach to the solution of problems makes it unnecessary for the students to reach a true understanding of the situation involved. On the other hand, emphasizing only problem–solving without enough attention to the development of skills may deprive the students of the power needed to take mathematics—and ourselves—to upper levels of development. Also here I see the need for a unified approach: Skills, problem-solving, and concepts are all of necessary importance.

The evolution of mathematics shows that it moves backwards in a retrospective reflective abstraction—going deeper into earlier mental processes, looking for the roots of mathematical concepts, as the formulation of new systems of axioms shows—and also forward, formulating more powerful theories, which are a generalization of the structures formed throughout  the retrospective reflection mentioned above. More than a static frame to be applied to common situations, algebraic procedures are the formalization of general properties of multiple particular past cases. We cannot deprive the students of the power of mathematics by withholding from them either a true understanding of the problems at hand or the retrospective look of reflective abstraction contained in algebraic procedures. Therefore, our work as mathematics educators must be that of engaging the students in activities that keep them deeply focused on what they are doing, as well as in activities that make them reflect on the current and previous procedures, abstracting general properties from them.