The Algebra Project founder and president–and lead organizer of the famous 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer voting rights campaign–talks about math literacy as an organizing tool to guarantee quality public school education for all children. Bob Moses describes the Algebra Project’s strategies to connect math to students’ life experiences and everyday language. The interview is divided into two episodes.
*Overview, transcript, and links below.
00:20-03:47 Establishing math literacy and educational quality as a Constitutional right
03:48-05:45 Next Gen curriculum; math texts become obsolete as soon as they are printed
05:46-12:23 Flagway game/sport
12:24-20:16 Relationship of Algebra Project to Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Framework; fundamental metaphors and concepts that can anchor math education
20:17-25:33 Nicholas Lemann’s “Transaction Man”; coming together at the intersection of different interests around a common problem; Math Literacy Institute at University of Ohio, Mansfield
25:34-27:24 Calling attention to the need for a national approach
Amy H-L: 00:15 Here’s part two of our interview with Bob Moses, civil rights leader and founder of the Algebra Project.
Jon M: 00:20 So the question that I was, was asking, and I think you were starting to answer was, in addition to funding, obviously, what would you, and this is a question of how our listeners can help, what would you like the federal government or the courts to do in terms of establishing the right to math literacy and educational quality as a constitutional right? What would be a marker of success?
Bob M: 00:49 So we would like Congress, in other words, and some future president to really seriously investigate establishing a direct, what we think of as direct federal investment and involvement in this particular dimension of education. You have an opening here just because of the shift from industrial to information age technology. The economy of the 20th century really was based on industrial technologies. The information age technologies open up two things. One, they add a new literacy. So quantitative literacy is now on the table alongside reading and writing. And so there’s got to be some, some level of proficiency for quantitative literacy that’s established in the public school system. What that is is not clear, but you know, the agreement has to be, well, we need all three literacies. People need to graduate with all three literacies, right. So the other is the shift in the nature of work from factory work to this work within the information technology arena, right, our knowledge work. So this shift in the nature of work really requires a fundamental shift in the education system, right? Since the education system we have now is an artifact of the 20th century, except for very few schools and students who are in elite private or public schools, right, and who are getting an education which prepares them for knowledge and for the work of the 21st century, the information age technology. So that’s, that’s an opening, right, because if you think about the civil rights movement, even, that we were part of and the effort to get political voice, that happened in the background of a planet-wide movement, right. So right now there’s a planet-wide movement, shifting from one technology to another. And so within that background, the whole issue of math education is right on the table like it was never been before. So there’s an opening there to try to use that as a pathway into a larger educational issue.
Jon M: 03:48 I have, I just wanted to ask two quick curricular questions, one formal and one less formal. The formal one is in New York State, there has been a lot, I’m not sure where it stands currently in terms of implementation, of the Next Gen math curriculum. Is that something that you’re familiar with and do you have a sense of whether it’s moving in in a direction you’d like to see?
Bob M: 04:11 Yeah, no, I, I’ve heard about it but I haven’t really, and I’m trying to think, at Fannie Lou Hamer, they’re not doing that, are they?
Jon M: 04:24 Not that I know of. My impression of it was that it was sort of seen as a corollary or companion to the Common Core in terms of literacy. And then they were going to introduce, you know, Next Gen in terms of math. And I’m not sure where it stands. I think the Regents may have postponed its implementation, but I was just curious.
Bob M: 04:43 Well I don’t have much. Here’s the thing, actual math textbooks are really obsolete the moment they’re printed. And what’s available now is a technology which allows for on time printing of materials and for teachers to be freed up to do professional development and not just be the recipients of some, you know, codified curriculum, but to actually participate in developing the curriculum for their classroom and their kids. I mean the technology is there to produce whatever they need in terms of curriculum materials. What is not there is the consciousness and the resources and the time, right. So that’s what’s needed for the 21st century.
Jon M: 05:46 And speaking of that, that leads right into my other question was I was watching a video, one of your videos from the Young People’s Project about the Flagway game, which just seemed, you know, very exciting and I wasn’t familiar with it at all. And I wonder if you could just describe it a little bit and whether it’s something that schools and after school programs could be implementing.
Bob M: 06:09 Yes, absolutely. But here’s the thing. We do sports in this country in two venues, right. We have sports that happen in schools and colleges and universities and then we have sports that happen in communities. People organize soccer teams and swim teams and so forth. So we do not have a knowledge-based sport. Flagway offers an opportunity for adults to organize a scenario that kids can participate in, in what I think of as a potential knowledge-based sport. Right now it’s a kind of game, right, that kids can play, but to be a sport it would require organizing into leagues and teams. And adults can do this, they can do this in communities and they do do this right, for certain sports. So I looked at the Mobius function in the 1990s, uh, in a book that was published by two philosophers, Reuben Hersh and I’ve forgotten the other, who were both at Brown at that time. And I came across this function and I thought to myself, well, we can materialize this function. We can actually spin it out within two and three dimensions. And so we did. And then the Young People’s Project was up and running. And basically after we developed, you know, a way to materialize it, we gave it to them and said, well look (I had gotten a patent on it), see what you can do with it, right. This is yours. What it does, it gives you access to something which nobody else has because at the heart of playing this game of very important concepts about numbers, which students don’t really tackle but which are really fundamental, and now they have a way of approaching them. So they’ve been at it for a couple of, almost maybe a couple of decades and have done, and it’s interesting to watch how long it takes for something to actually take hold and to be run by the young people themselves because they are now in their mid forties the, the ones who started it, right?. But they’ve got a whole crew, they’ve got kids in their twenties and you know, school is high school and middle school kids. And that’s one thing the NSF STEM thing did for them because, the Alliance proved to be, as people came, you know, into the Alliance and talked about it, the one thing they thought of concretely that they could do was Flagway. And so the Flagway dimension of YPP has grown and they’re having national tournaments every year. So, and it really goes, you think about, well how are you, how are you going to organize a community around math? So it is possible to organize a community around a math-based sport. What you need is a place to play it. You need transportation to get the kids there. We need some food, right?.You’re not talking big money here, you’re talking about some resources and you need a program which allows people from the community to be trained to be the coaches of the teams and to run with it, right. So that has really been gratifying to watch, but it’s interesting how long it takes for something like this to actually break in. We’ve gotten a lot of help now from MSRI. Do you guys do anything with them? That Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. It’s the nation’s think tank for recent mathematicians. And so they do a national math festival every other year and so the next one is 2021 and YPP has been part of that with the Flagway. So they’ve had teams come in, they do it in DC and they attract a lot of kids. They have maybe 20,000 kids to this program. But the thing about math festivals of course is, well, you’re trying to reach the kids. And that’s the thing about Flagway, because it can reach kids who are not, you know, performing in the top 10% or so forth in their math class, right. So how do you get, and the other thing about Flagway that’s a really important, is that it’s a tool for having kids do entry-level knowledge work. Because the process of organizing a team and talking and explaining about math concepts in the context of organizing the team and the game really is entry-level knowledge work, right? You’ve got to work with other people, you’ve got to deal with some abstract concepts. Uh, you got to learn how to talk to people, so forth. And so that’s, that’s been a big plus getting the idea of knowledge work for the kids.
Amy H-L: 12:24 Bob, going back to what you were saying about freeing up the teachers to do more professional development and curriculum development, I’m thinking about this new framework in New York, the Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Framework. I’m wondering if this ties in, if the Algebra Project and the idea of teachers actually developing curriculum for their classrooms ties in with the Framework. I’m thinking, do you have in mind that curriculum would be more community-focused, that the references would be in context of specific communities?
Bob M: 13:07 Hmm. So I think, in some sense the math curriculum hasn’t changed since we started this work, I was talking with Greg Busby, who is the dean at the University of Illinois at Edwardsville. And before that, he was chair of the math department of the University of Illinois, Carbondale. And at, around a little after the turn of the century, he invited me to come up and give a talk at Carbondale. And when I left, I asked him, well, what are you working on? And he said, well, I’m working on an unfinished problem in research mathematics called the “road coloring problem” and it hasn’t been solved yet and I’m working on trying to solve it. And so I said, well, what’s it about? And so he showed me some things. So I said to myself, well, we can materialize this and we can get the kids to work on it, right. So this was in the spring. They had taken their exams, we still got a month more school to go. And so we spent that month developing materials around this problem. And the basic idea that materialized it is, say you have five circles, hoops, in the classroom. You set them up and you have red roads, red sticks and blue sticks coming and going. One way sticks from each hoop. So each hoop has to have a stick. You can go into, in a stick, you can go out to, and you have red rows and blue rows, right. And you put a kid in each hoop and then somebody starts to say a road color, red or blue. And depending on the color, they move out from the hoop following the road. And the idea is to get everybody in the same hoop at the same time, right. So I called Greg up, I said, we’re working on your problem. He didn’t believe me. He got in his car and drove down to Jackson and we got together in the library and instead of walking around, we had little chips on paper to put in the in the hoops. right. And so at one point he stopped the whole class and said, you know what (and I had all my classes, about three classes; we were all in the library during this), he said, there are more people working on this problem right now in this room than the whole planet. So he was hooked, and he decided he would go in with us on writing some curriculum materials for NSF, for an NSF grant about this. So he did, and we got funded, and there’s a set of curriculum materials around the road cone problem. And he also wrote some other curriculum around another exercise that we did, that we do. And he’s calling me cause he’s leaving, he’s stepping down as dean. And his idea is that, well, nothing has changed. What we were trying to do was say there were some fundamental metaphors and some fundamental concepts that can anchor students’ math education and we need to focus the math education around those and bring them along. But that hasn’t happened. Even with Common Core, that hasn’t happened. So he’s interested in us writing a book about this. We’ll see. But on the question of the community, there is the issue of developing materials around practical issues in communities. And there are people who do that. And of course the pedagogy that I described allows for that. So if you have teachers, right, who are up to it, yes. That could fit right in. And then we have these really very few curricular materials which tackle, basically, I think they tackle the transition from arithmetic to algebra around addition and subtraction. And if you about it, every algebra textbook that you open up, and I remember I went with the mathematician I was telling you about, Dubinsky, because he was doing NSF grants with college mathematicians, right, and we were going through the stuff with them. And so the question was what about this equation, which happens in every algebra textbook, a minus b equals a plus the opposite of b, right. And basically they were saying, well it’s the definition of subtraction, right. To subtract a number, you add the opposite, right. Well, of course that’s a kind of formal procedural process. It operates at a procedural level, right. It doesn’t really get you into what work does subtraction do and why is subtraction at the heart of all these important formulas like slope, like derivative, right. Not addition. So what’s the work that subtraction is doing? And so the trip line really allows students to explore this. And what it turns out is, you know that the work that subtraction does is make a relative comparison of the location of one object relative to another. And as soon as you get that concept in, then you don’t need all the rules that they give in the algebra textbook. You can go with your understanding of what is doing. And this of course is very important when you get to the idea of linear functions, right, or linear equations and you want to need the slope. And so you have these subtraction, you know, x one x two O minus x one over y two minus y one. So, so what’s going on? What’s the work that’s being done? Right? So I think the Algebra Project has really focused in on a way to make those concepts available, but it requires real commitment and time and you know, resources.
Jon M: 20:17 This has been just so exciting listening. Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about?
Bob M: 20:23 Well, have you looked at Lemann’s new book Transaction Man? So, you know Nicholas Lemann. He wrote The Big Test and Redemption and The Promised Land and now a book called Transaction Man. And at the end of the book he says, you know, well, we had the organization man and then we had the transaction man. Then we had the effort to have the network man, right. But none of these have worked out. And he suggests that what we need is pluralism and we need insurgents, in some sense, who organize themselves around a very particular issue that they are going to push. So, so that’s where we are in some sense. I think these other initiatives, the corporation and the organization man, and then the whole issue of making transactions is what you do, and you do that as an individual. And then the idea that somehow networks would allow for real communication that those things haven’t, hasn’t worked out. So I think of, when I think back at the work of SNCC and I think, well, what were we doing in Mississippi, because we weren’t an organization, SNCC wasn’t an organization in that sense. And the work wasn’t under an organization in that sense cause you had SNCC, you had CORE, you had the NAACP, right, you had the National Council of Churches, you had COFO, so you had groups that had their own interests but who came together to work on one common problem for a few years, get the vote. But what allowed them to come together was their own interests and the intersection of those interests around this common problem, right. And so, and then SNCC I think ran into a problem when it be tried to become an organization in the sense like a corporation is an organization where you really have allegiance to just SNCC and that didn’t work out, right. And it, if you think about it now, they were trying what was going on at the time, right, which is corporations and organizations, right. So I think now what has allowed us to sort of move forward, even within this very restricted domain that NSF has carved out about STEM, where basically it’s top down, like you get the universities and you try to move from there because well, we have pockets in disparate places around the country. So like there’s a pocket, it would be interesting for you to interview them in Mansfield, Ohio. There’s a math literacy institute at the University of Ohio in Mansfield. And we got there as part of an NSF grant about 10 years ago. And they were successful because they were able to implement this idea of taking eighth graders and working with them through the summer and the same teacher following them into school. And so at the end of the 10th grade, they did so well that the state actually said we need to help fund this, right. And so from there, they set up with elementary schools how to do this curriculum process. And it’s interesting because elementary school teachers are much stronger in language. So approaching the math through the language of the kids, right, they found that very helpful and so they’ve expanded that.They have a website, they have a beautiful little curriculum, a set of materials around fractions where the kids make rulers. So they make their own rulers and they then approach concepts of fractions, right, by using the rulers they made, right. And they’ve worked, they have it on a website and they’ve worked to try to see, well how does this line up with what the state says they should know at that period of time?
Jon M: 25:27 We can definitely follow up with that and talk to them.
Bob M: 25:29 Ben will certainly put you in touch with them.
Jon M: 25:33 Great. We’ll do that.
Bob M: 25:34 So there are these pockets around the country and of course there, you’re not talking about black kids, you’re talking about rural white kids basically, in small, small school districts surrounding Mansfield and a superintendent who decided he was going to put some real energy into this. I mean, he had a Flagway game on the football field. [inaudible] So there’s, that’s where we are, but I think, and our problem is, and people will help, is people can begin to think about, well, what does my congressman think about this, right. And how do I put my congressmen on notice that, you know, this is a real issue here and I want him or her to do something around it. So we’ll be back in DC this summer, it’s not clear, towards the end of July after the Democratic convention, and we’ll try to figure out again another way or another try at calling attention to this issue and beginning a conversation around a national approach. It’s not going to go away and you can do all you want about prison reform, but if the kids don’t have the tools, it’s not gonna happen.
Jon M: 27:14 And we’ll be glad to be posting stuff on our website as this develops, just keeping people with access to what you’re doing.
Amy H-L: 27:25 Thank you so much, Bob Moses, and thank you listeners for joining us. Check out our website, ethicalschools.org for episodes and blogs. We’ve begun to post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them more user friendly. We also offer professional development on social emotional learning and ethics in the New York City area. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.