My name is Art Bardige. What if Math started about three years ago when Corri Taylor, a math professor at Wellesley College who has been teaching Quantitative Reasoning courses and I started thinking about going after a grant to build some online QR type content. We took off from a from a comment my friend George Zimmerman, a physics professor at Boston University, made to me that students needed to be immersed in a STEM world they could explore. Since the grant did not have enough money for programming, I suggested that we use Excel as our platform and build content on it. I have been a digital learning designer and developer since 1980 and for the past 15 years I have been focused exclusively on math education. I taught Jr. High math and high school physics and I had been involved in math curriculum development on paper and film before launching my digital learning career. Peter Mili, who was then teaching math at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School joined Corri and me in this venture. Peter and I had worked together for over 10 years on EnableMath. We got together because one of his students Luke Biewald, who helped me design and develop EnableMath, said that Peter was the best math teacher he had ever seen. Peter has taught the scope of secondary mathematics courses including a Quantitative Reasoning elective he developed. He earned his National Board Teacher Certification in 2000 and in 2013, was recognized as a Teacher of Excellence by the NEA Foundation and as a Global Learning Fellow by the Pearson Foundation.
Our proposal didn’t get funded but its ideas had legs. I have great friends in technology and education who I involved in a wide variety of conversations, design sessions, and prototyping. George Blakeslee now professor emeritus at Lesley University and former biology teacher who has been my friend for 30 years helped us think through the pedagogy to turn education from instruction to learn. Larry Reeves a former community college president and my business partner on EnableMath brought a constant vision of the needs of students entering colleges unprepared for college work. Steve Bayle who started his digital career at Software Arts working with the first spreadsheet VisiCalc asked the penetrating questions and suggested the sharp insights at our often Thai lunches that drove thinking to the next and the next level.
During the fall of 2012 I read Keith Devlin’s fascinating book, The Man of Numbers, about Leonardo of Pisa. The book included the “Table of Contents” of Leonardo’s book, Liber abbaci written in 1202 yes 1202! His list of chapter titles were a nearly exact replica of the math curriculum of every K-12 school today. We think we are preparing our children for the 21st century but I realized that we were actually preparing them for medieval commerce in the 13th century. I had one of those holy… moments when I felt I finally understood where math education needed to go. Our math curriculum today is not basic, it is not essential, it was designed for the most part in the year 1202 to teach merchants and traders a new way to do their business mathematics.
Today, business no longer needs or uses this math, it does most all of its math on spreadsheets. Today spreadsheet tools are ubiquitous, available in school, at home, on handheld devices for doing mathematics. So we started building case-study type problems on spreadsheets. Those spreadsheets that we had been playing with to provide some integrated STEM curriculum could let us think about learning math as a laboratory science. We built some 8 fancy multi-sheet spreadsheets around interesting STEM problems and constructed a new website to show them off. The results were underwhelming. We wanted others to construct this kind of content on our model and even when we offered prizes for such content we got no response. Now, I consider 0 (zero) to be a very big number. We decided that these spreadsheets were just too big and way to complicated.
About that time my friend Megan Peterson, teaching second grade in York, Maine wanted some help dealing with the hour a week she was supposed to have in the computer lab. So I made up a couple of simple math lessons on Excel for her to try which opened my eyes to think about greatly simplifying what we had been doing. My friend Craig Kelley, a Cambridge City Councilor, and I would often get breakfast together and talk about the future of education and the role that technology had to play in that future. I have long believed that we must and can only change education through the use of technology. Craig challenged me. “Art,” he said, “Show me what a 2nd grade math curriculum in Excel would look like.”
Well at that time I was starting to work on Sidewalk Math and early math learning so I was caught by Craig’s challenge and began work on math lessons on spreadsheets for 2nd graders. Sometimes new ideas can look great but go nowhere, and sometimes, yes every once in a while, a new idea will explode and like the Big Bang create a universe. Well this one was one of those magic ideas. It took us a month to come up with many second grade math Labs and we began to show it around. Fortunately, Peter had by then retired from teaching in Cambridge giving us much more time to work together on this project. Peter, who now claims to be flunking retirement, not only brings his math and teaching knowledge to bear on all of the content, he brings the profoundly important expectation that students need to be challenged: challenged to try new things, challenged to answer “What if… questions, not just What is…, challenged to think creatively, challenged to take control of their learning!
It is one thing to see the visualization of a concept, and quite another to develop lessons, real curriculum for students to actually use. In all it has taken nearly a year. Which brings me to the last key member of our team, Ryan McQuade, now a senior at Lesley University and an art and design major. Good curriculum like everything else requires the combination of science and art. If it doesn’t look good, if it isn’t easy to use, if it does not grab your attention then it will not work for kids. Ryan turned good ideas into beautiful lessons. I worked with him on Sidewalk Math where he took an idea and made it a reality so I knew what he could do. Our website and his design of our Labs proves it.
There are others, so many others who have helped make this reinvention of math education work. My friends Chuck Olson and Frank Ferguson pushed new ideas and cleaned up old ones. My children Brenan, a math educator who develops digital learning curriculum and teaches me math, Arran who teaches me about analytics and thus learning of the future, and Kori, an early childhood educator, teaches me how to think about children. There are so many more who have contributed greatly to this effort that I have not named individually. Peter and I give our thanks to all of you.
We have made this content Free because we believe that for the educational content of the future to be rich, engaging, and creative, it will have to be developed by many people. We hope to provide a template for that content and look forward to many people joining in this effort. We welcome your feedback and your suggested topics. We hope to put together a vetting procedure to enable you and others to create Spreadsheet Math together and offer the math education our students will need for their future.