April 5, 2012

“More than 20 years ago, I was working on a project at the Muzzey Junior High School in Lexington, MA, which had been persuaded by Wally Feuerzeig to allow a seventh grade to “do Logo” instead of math for that year. This was a brave decision for a principal who could not have known that the students would actually advance their math achievement score, even though they didn’t do anything that resembled normal school math that year!

But the story I really want to tell is not about test scores. It is not even about the math/Logo class. It is about the art room I used to pass on the way. For a while, I dropped in periodically to watch students working on soap sculptures and mused about ways in which this was not like a math class. In the math class students are generally given little problems which they solve or don’t solve pretty well on the fly. In this particular art class they were all carving soap, but what each students carved came from wherever fancy is bred and the project was not done and dropped but continued for many weeks. It allowed time to think, to dream, to gaze, to get a new idea and try it and drop it or persist, time to talk, to see other people’s work and their reaction to yours–not unlike mathematics as it is for the mathematician, but quite unlike math as it is in junior high school. I remember craving some of the students’ work and learning that their art teacher and their families had first choice. I was struck by an incongruous image of the teacher in a regular math class pining to own the products of his students’ work! An ambition was born: I want junior high school math class to be like that. I didn’t know exactly what “that” meant but I knew I wanted it. I didn’t even know what to call the idea. For a long time it existed in my head as “soap-sculpture math.””

Papert, S. and Harel, I. (1991) “Situating Constructionism” in Constructionism. NY: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

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