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Winter Reading: Books by TC Faculty

From Russia, with Love... for Mathematics

By Siddhartha Mitter

In Russia, a country famed for its contributions to mathematics and its high standard of math teaching, the walls of math classrooms are often adorned with the portraits of famous mathematicians.

It’s no accident that some of those same faces can be found in pictures hanging in the Thompson Hall office of TC’s Math, Science and Technology Program.

During the Khrushchev era in the early 1960s, Bruce Vogeli, now TC’s Clifford Brewster Upton Professor of Mathematical Education and Director of the College’s Program in Mathematics eEducation, spent half a year teaching in Moscow and has maintained close ties with Russia ever since. By the mid-1990s, when Vogeli visited St. Petersburg, Alexander Karp was already a well-regarded math education specialist there. Karp came to TC as a visiting professor in1998 and is now Associate Professor of Mathematics and Education. 

Now Vogeli and Karp have produced Russian Mathematics Education, a landmark collection offering a wealth of detail on how Russian math education evolved from Czarist times through today, how it has weathered the country’s political and social changes, and how teachers are trained and all aspects of mathematics taught in Russian schools.

With writings by 24 contributors from Russia, the United States, Poland, Cuba, Hungary and Israel spread across two volumes -- “History and World Significance” and “Programs and Practices” – Russian Mathematics Education has an encyclopedic heft and feel.

Several chapters trace the history of reforms and counter-reforms in Russian math education over the decades. The special role of high-level academic mathematicians in curriculum development, the tradition of school contests and Olympiads, and the influence of Russian methods on other countries are discussed in detail. So are the specifics of teaching algebra, geometry and calculus, as well as of teacher training, assessment and education research.

In part, the editors say in their introduction, the project responds to the flood of highly-trained Russian mathematicians who have moved to the West since the Gorbachev period, and to curiosity about the system that has produced such talent. But more broadly, the book is a lens onto a culture in which a positive attitude toward mathematics is a signature point of pride.

In the United States “you hear a lot of negative stories about mathematics,” Karp says. “People say, ‘Oh, I don’t understand mathematics,’ or ‘I hated math’ or ‘I was afraid of mathematics.’ In Russia, for many reasons, the general attitude is very different.”

Those reasons include “a tradition of long and serious treatment of objects and a culture of reasoning and discussion and exploring of these objects,” Karp says. Russian schools emphasize “intensive lessons in which the teacher organizes activities in a meaningful sequence, which gives students an opportunity to really think about the subject on their own level.

“It’s a fantastic thing when you can see that students are not necessarily mathematical geniuses, but are actively thinking mathematically,” he says. “It’s really mathematics for all.”

Then, too, Russian math teachers typically have more mathematics training than their counterparts in many other countries. A Russian elementary school teacher might not have to teach calculus, but having mastered the topic, she is in a position to prepare students to engage and appreciate it down the line.

The experience of student teachers is different as well. Karp recalls from his own training as a mathematics teacher at St. Petersburg’s Herzen University that he logged far fewer classroom hours than American preservice teachers, but that those hours were more intense.

“It’s not just giving a lesson,” he says. “You have to write what you are going to say, how you think students will respond, what will be written on the blackboard, et cetera. Then you give this lesson and all your fellow students are there. And then it’s discussed.”

Yet Russian Mathematics Education doesn’t turn a blind eye to the dark side of its topic. At times during Soviet history, ideology and anti-Semitism impinged on education and drove talented teachers and academics from their positions. Mathematics retained its privileged place and drew the best students in the Soviet era in part because the regime devalued the humanities and gutted training in those fields.

Today math – like all education fields – faces new challenges in Russia. Economic opportunity is prompting many young people to choose professions that are more lucrative than teaching. Karp says a culture of fast money and corruption at high levels of government are also hurting education. Further, Russian education is becoming highly centralized again after a time of loosening and experimentation in the immediate post-Soviet period. And Karp says the system’s attempts to grapple with issues such as teacher evaluation have achieved mixed results.

Karp’s hope is that Russian Mathematics Education offers something for everyone—from those who want to understand and emulate Russian methods to historians of education and anyone interested in Russia in general. No tradition is immune to change or destruction, he says, but thus far mathematics education in Russia has produced something any educator can appreciate: “It gives youth the opportunity to really explore something.”

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