My Advice to Qatar: Make Math Education a Research Grand Challenge tumblr_inline_ng6u60tmt51r57lmx.png

I was invited to be on a social science panel for the Qatar Foundation’s 2014 Annual Research Conference in Doha. While there, I took the opportunity to give a talk on “Breaking Through the Zero Lower Bound” at Texas A&M’s Doha campus, moderated by Dr Khalid Rashid Alkhater, director of research and monetary policy and member of the Monetary Policy Committee and the Investment Committee at the Qatar Central Bank. And I had a chance to see Doha. (You can see the best of the photos I took here and here.) 

The Annual Research Conference itself was quite interesting. Except for the Social Sciences, it was organized around four “Research Grand Challenges”: Water Security, Energy Security, Cyber Security and Integrated Health Care. In addition, there is an overarching goal of making Qatar into a “Knowledge Economy.” The panel I was on (see the picture of me and the other panelists above) was on the second day of the conference. On the first day of the conference, I sent an email to several of the other panelists and others I met suggesting that the Qatar Foundation make Math Education its fifth Research Grand Challenge. Here is a lightly edited version of that email:

I promised each of you to send links to the two articles I wrote for Quartz (a relatively new online international business magazine started by the Atlantic Company) about math education:

There’s One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don’t

How to Turn Every Child into a “Math Person”

These articles had a large number of pageviews, indicating a great deal of concern about math education.I think it would be both attainable and extremely valuable for the Qatar Foundation to make it a key goal to be the number one center for research and knowledge about math education in the world. Gathering that knowledge, and then implementing it in Qatar’s schools would have a bigger bang for the buck than anything else in achieving the broader goal of fostering a knowledge economy in Qatar. And having such a center would be a great benefit to the rest of the world as well.  Because schools of education in the US and likely many other prestigious countries are often quite politicized, it is crucial to bring into the effort of figuring out the best way to do math education experts whose home is in other fields besides education, as well as some of the best education scholars.   Along these interdisciplinary lines, one of the best education thinkers is actually a renowned professor at Harvard Business School: Clay Christensen. (He has many times won the top award in the world for a business strategist.) With his coauthors, he has written a pair of excellent books on the transformation ofeducation that is now underway because of high-powered computing–#4 and #5 in this list:
I think all of the other stakeholders in the Qatar Foundation in the natural sciences will easily see the value of an emphasis on figuring out how to do math education well–something most advanced countries do not do.   In terms of tracking the achievement of the goal of math education, the single most important measure would be to ask representative samples of kids “Do you love math.” Success would be 90% of students honestly saying “Yes.”  If almost all of Qatar’s children loved math, the knowledge economy would follow as day follows night. 

The question for the panel discussion was particularly about survey data collection for Qatar. In my initial statement, I began by mentioning the importance of measuring national well being, but said that for the goal of becoming a knowledge economy, measuring some other intermediate goals made sense. I laid out for those attending the panel discussion the idea of making Math Education a fifth Research Grand Challenge, identifying and implementing best practice for math education, including the use of new technologies. I urged that Qatar should set a goal of making math education in Qatar better than math education in any other nation, saying that was unfortunately easy because the standards for math education are low. As in my email, I said that if I could choose one survey question to monitor the progress of this effort, it would be to ask kids “How do you feel about math.” If 90% of kids said that they loved math that would be success: in particular, it would augur good things for Qatar’s hopes of becoming a knowledge economy.   

In the discussion that followed, I had to defend the choice of math education as a focus. Of course there are many other issues in education, but I maintain that because doing math education right is the hardest, solving that would put Qatar in a great position to improve education more generally. For example, coding (what we called “computer programming” when I was young) uses much of the same type of thinking as mathematics, but it is probably easier to motivate kids to be excited about computer programming than it is to motivate them to be excited about math.  (Improving foreign language education–which in much of the world is first and foremost learning English–is a fascinating issue, and one that I studied in the course of getting my MA in Linguistics. Like math education, I think foreign language education can be dramatically improved. But I should save my thoughts on that for another post.)   There were other things I didn’t have time to say in the panel discussion, but said in conversations beforehand and afterwards. In line with the thinking of Clay Christensen and his coauthors, I argued that the potential of technology is in making it possible to have a division of labor between

  • teachers who have a deep knowledge of the subject matter of economics, who record online lectures and help design computer programs that teach mathematics (the teacher-at-a-distance) and
  • teachers who are expert at motivating students (the coach-on-the-spot).  

It is wonderful but rare to find a single teacher who combines deep mathematical knowledge and brilliance at motivating students; it is much easier to find someone who has one of these skills. I actually think coaching talent–the ability to motivate–is relatively abundant. But the ability to instill enthusiasm needs to be teamed up with a good teacher-at-a-distance with the deep subject matter knowledge.

In any case, this line of thought gives me some confidence that dramatically better programs of math education are possible. A research center in Qatar focusing on math education that brought in the top experts from around the world to debate one another and generate new ideas could dramatically improve the world’s knowledge of how to do math education. I don’t claim to know all the answers about math education. But I know enough to be confident that what is possible for math education is far beyond what is currently done. In particular, any system of math education that leads to half of all kids hating math at the end, is far, far below the possibility frontier.  

The goal of being the best in the world at something has a powerful motivating force. There is honor to be had for any nation that takes seriously the challenge of fulfilling the potential of math education. And for Qatar to do so might transform not only Qatar, but the whole Arab world, allowing the Arab world to reclaim the preeminence in mathematics that was one of the hallmarks of the Arab world’s golden age. (There is a reason so many key words in math, such as “algebra,” “algorithm,” “cipher,” and perhaps even “average” come from Arabic.)