When Public Events Affect Mathematics Learning

Presidential Ponderings, December 5, 2016

The Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators (AMTE) is the largest organization in the United States committed to the improvement of mathematics teacher education.  As a nonpartisan organization, AMTE does not take positions in presidential elections.  We are not, however, blind to the effects that national events have on society in general and schools in particular, and the recent presidential election campaign has had an effect that we believe must be acknowledged.  Statements were made that were threatening to subsets of our population.  These statements have resulted in the population in general, and members of targeted groups in particular, feeling various emotions, including vulnerability, isolation, anxiety, and fear.  

What implications follow for those of us charged with working to improve mathematics teacher education?  If learning took place only in the cognitive sphere, then mathematics teachers might simply pause, remind students what is and is not acceptable in schools, and then return to the task of engaging students in high-quality mathematical experiences.  However, learning mathematics is not that simple.  Students’ dispositions toward learning are a critical dimension of the teaching and learning enterprise, and as such, affect is always a partner in our learning environments.  Learning mathematics requires students to hear the voice of self-doubt without allowing it to drown out the voices of confidence, persistence, and self-efficacy.  For students to engage in productive struggle, they must be strong enough to struggle.  For students to engage in academic risk–taking, they must feel they are part of a supportive learning environment in which sharing one’s reasoning will be respected, not ridiculed.  Students must feel supported if they are to grapple with the challenges of learning rich and deep mathematics.  We know how difficult learning mathematics can be for students even when their environment is stacked in their favor.  What happens to students encumbered with new fears and anxieties that follow them to school?  

Most teachers recognize the role of affect in teaching because most have experiences as learners or teachers whereby a student’s personal life has inhibited his or her short–term learning.  But the recent presidential campaign has affected millions.  The collective vulnerability, anxiety, or fear may seem to dissipate as events become normalized, but for many it may remain a constant partner in their learning experience.  Mathematics teachers must consider affect alongside issues of planning, pedagogy, and practice.  As the presidents of the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators, we urge all mathematics teacher educators to approach their work in general, and their work with prospective and practicing mathematics teachers in particular, with a renewed sensitivity for the role that affect and compassion play in mathematics learning.

Randolph Philipp & Christine Thomas, President-Elect and President

About the Authors

President-Elect  (2016-2017) 
Randy Phillipp 
Professor, School of Teacher Education & Center for Research in Mathematics & Science Education
San Diego State University

President (2015-2017)
Christine Thomas (bio
Professor, Department of Middle & Secondary Education
Georgia State University