Borden questions motives of wanting to return to math basics

November 27, 2018
By Jens Nielsen, Editor, Saskatchewan Bulletin

For many years the general consensus was either you got math or you didn’t, in terms of understanding and memorization.

Lisa Lunney Borden, one of the keynote presenters at this year’s Saskatchewan Mathematics Teachers’ Society conference, #SUM2018, is adamant this assumption is incorrect. She is equally determined to have others understand that this is a telltale sign of “those in the know” clinging to maintain the status quo.

Borden emphasized how thinking is purposely entrenched in order to preserve the elitism that comes from the traditional presentation of mathematics in western society.

“It’s a falsehood, and everybody can do mathematics if it’s taught in the right manner. Preserving the status quo was meant to keep people out. So for those who were able to have success with math, there was a definite sense of elitism.”

Borden is equally determined that those in the educational community who are dismissive of any new techniques, while advocating a back-to-basics approach, are simply misguided.

“That approach was never successful and certainly not inclusive. We need to teach math in such a way that kids really get it, and that they can get to the answers by problem solving as opposed to just memorization. You can see it time and time again, and it’s powerful. It is a much more equitable way for students to demonstrate their understanding of math, and it gives them all an opportunity to experience success.”

Borden, who is an associate professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, traces her passion for thinking differently about mathematics back to when she taught math for Grades 7 to 12 in a Mi’kmaw community.
That experience was one of the catalysts for her working with colleagues David Wagner, Newell Johnson and a team of teachers to develop the program known as Show Me Your Math, which invites Indigenous youth to find the mathematical reasoning inherent in their own community context.

According to Borden, this program encourages Aboriginal students in Atlantic Canada to explore the mathematics that is evident in their own community and cultural practices, while discovering numerous examples of how math is all around them in their daily lives.
“It’s a falsehood, and everybody can do mathematics if it’s taught in the right manner. Preserving the status quo was meant to keep people out. So for those who were able to have success with math, there was a definite sense of elitism.”
Lisa Lunney Borden

“When I talk to math friends, it’s always about focusing on the process and that is what helps kids unpack things. Verbalizing math is best for everyone, and it makes much more sense when you consider spatial reasoning. That is what kids relate to best.”
Decrying the fact that it has been commonplace to trace mathematics back to Greece, Borden said in truth, it was being practiced in North America long before the European settlers arrived. She cited this as another egregious example of colonialism as it relates to math and education in general.

“The thinking became so embedded, that the traditional Indigenous approach was not recognized. I see it as my job to share with others what we should all be doing, and that is to learn the real history and make amends.
“When it comes to reconciliation, it’s not like this is ancient history in terms of what happened to Indigenous culture, but we tell ourselves that it is. It’s still ongoing and it plays out every day, but we look the other way and perpetuate the myth which is to maintain that European superiority.”

Interestingly, Borden said that at a very young age she had, what today would be seen as, a strong sense of social justice and a recognition of inequity when she has encountered it.
Alluding to her presentation at the Saskatoon convention, which was met with warm applause from those in attendance, Borden said while she strives to be entertaining during her presentations, “it’s basically me sharing my own stories 
as a teacher and researcher. 

I don’t profess to be an expert, but I have learned along the way. I want people to think about what I am sharing.” Borden said while some might find her thoughts somewhat controversial, she maintains she rarely gets pushback.

“My goal is to work with people and to look at how to do things differently and in a more equitable way. Hopefully along the way I can build capacity,” she offered.