Throwing the shackles off mathematics

Mathematics works to hold some people back: Children fitting a stereotype are encouraged to think; others are told to follow. 9/11 changed Associate Professor Theodore Chao’s purpose. He’s out to prevent math trauma by helping children engage in mathematics in “amazing and deep ways.”
Dr. Chao

Transcript of Podcast

Robin Chenoweth: In times of crisis, people take stock of what is valuable to them. Research shows that divorces spike in the aftermath of war. So do births. During natural disasters, people step into new roles as protectors, defenders. And during times like we’ve experienced lately, of social unrest and isolation due to coronavirus, some people have done a hard reset on what’s important in their lives. They are figuring out what they stand for.That reboot of values might occur at several points during our lives. It happened to Theodore Chao, back in 2001. One day changed everything for him. Years before he became an Ohio State researcher unraveling how to make mathematics accessible to kids, he was a new Johns Hopkins graduate, 22 years old and flying high, making a boatload of money at a dotcom start up in New York City.

Theodore Chao: The basis was, if you give cameras to youth oriented groups, break dancers, BMX bicyclers ,  people who do,  improv comedy and you allow them to just sort of film, a lot of their skits and things they do, and then we hire a team editors cut them into bite sized chunks and you put this content online you get these small snippets of what life is like in these subcultures that might not often get a lot of attention.

Robin Chenoweth: Sounds familiar, right? Remember this was four years before YouTube was created, and six years before the release of the iPhone.

Theodore Chao: We were building video codex so that people could watch video online and things that we take for granted today with YouTube or Vimeo or other streaming services of just being a watch video and then going to the next video and categorizing videos and making videos — these are all things that I remember having to build from scratch years ago, because there wasn't anything like it.

Robin Chenoweth: It was fun work for a guy just out of college. Chao went to Amsterdam to help film the Cannabis Cup — what Chao calls the Oscars of the marijuana industry — and around the United States, marketing to college youth culture.  Everything was going swimmingly, until one morning when his roommate jostled him awake.

Theodore Chao:  And so, I still remember specifically my roommate coming in and saying, ‘Hey man, you should turn the TV on.  Something crazy is happening.’

Robin Chenoweth: He switched on the set and then climbed the steps to his apartment roof.

Theodore Chao: We were living in Brooklyn right across the river from downtown. I remember going to my roof and being able to see the smoke coming out. We could even see the building the World Trade Center. Because it was such a tall set of towers across the river, I saw it all happen. And then I was constantly, going from upstairs to downstairs where I could see on the TV, what was going on. It was a pretty traumatic day.”

Robin Chenoweth: One day was a disruptor and a game changer for Teddy Chao. 9/11 wreaked havoc on New York City and on the economy. It tested the nation’s nerves. The dotcom’s venture capitalist pulled out and Chao’s job went up in smoke. And though circumstances were very different than they are in 2020, the national crisis then had a similar effect on him as events lately have had on people in America. Suddenly change was not a choice anymore.

Robin Chenoweth: This is Ohio State’s Inspire Podcast, a production of the College of Education and Human Ecology. I’m Robin Chenoweth. 9/11 drew a line in the sand for Teddy Chao.

Theodore Chao: I think a lot about days that had a major impact on my life. I think that one was definitely heavy for a lot of us, right? That that one had a big impact.  But for me, particularly in that it shut down the company and it really forced me to think about what I was doing. At the time working in dotcom was fun. I mean there's a lot of fun in that there was a lot of attention in being involved in media and being, you know, involved in a sexy new company, in a website that was trying to cater to youth culture.

Theodore Chao: But, I really questioned what it was all worth, after 9/11 happened. How is this actually making the world a better place? How is this supporting and connecting with the people who, you know, really need and deserve the love that government or society is not giving them?

Robin Chenoweth: Losing his job allowed him the space to imagine the possibility of change. And while he was out of work and freelancing as a computer programmer to pay the bills, a bit of serendipity happened. His landlord asked Chao to tutor his son in algebra.

Robin Chenoweth: Now you would think to become a professor who teaches and researches mathematics education, he would have to love math. But Theodore Chao had an indifferent, and maybe even a borderline antagonistic relationship with mathematics. And that stemmed from a type of racial typecasting that occurred in his youth. Chao was born in New York to Chinese immigrant parents.  His dad worked in sales for a petrochemicals company and so they moved around a lot. The family even spent a few years in Tapei, Taiwan, where Chao attended an American School, and had the surreal experience of looking like the majority Chinese immigrant students there but not being able to talk or relate to them.

Theodore Chao: Being in a space in which ethically, I was part of the majority group, I was part of the dominant group in which everyone looked like me and I could see people who looked like my parents or looked like my grandparents all around me… And yet also because we spoke English and I was an American citizen and I went to an American school and my parents, they could speak Mandarin, but they really spoke Cantonese, which is the language that they grew up in, in southern China…We were definitely foreigners. We were seen as different, as outsiders within Taiwanese culture.”

Robin Chenoweth: He remembers asking a cafeteria worker to help him decipher bad Chinese translations on the lunch menu. The person responded in Chinese, and when he didn’t understand, kept saying it louder, and more slowly — but still in Chinese. 

Theodore Chao: I was a second grader, six or seven years old. I just moved to the country. And I was really just taken aback and I think I broke down sort of crying because I have no idea why this person was sort of yelling at me. I thought they were yelling at me in Chinese because I didn't understand the language, and yet I was trying to get lunch. And so there…  I think there's situations in which I felt like I was living in between multiple worlds.

Robin Chenoweth: As a second-generation, ethnically Chinese American, that feeling of living in multiple worlds, and not fitting well in any of them, didn’t go away. Back in the States, teachers advanced him a grade level in middle school math, and he was steered toward “mathy” pursuits in high school.

Theodore Chao: I was encouraged by my teachers to do things like join the Engineering Society, join the math club. And I actually, I did a little bit of them, but I didn't want to be stereotyped as a nerd, right? As this Chinese American nerd who loves and does all this math. And so, I joined the football team. I joined the debate club. I wrote for the high school newspaper. I tried very hard, very much to do things that were different than the stereotype of what it meant to be someone in the math club.

Robin Chenoweth: Without considering it, his teachers were advancing model minority stereotypes — cultural expectations placed on Asian Americans to be smart, naturally good in STEM fields, hard-working and self-reliant. And he was actively rejecting them.

Theodore Chao: So math was always something that came relatively easy to me and I think a lot of people who do math say that. But when I really start to reflect upon and break it apart it’s maybe perhaps not that math was easy for me. it’s that everyone around me assumed that I had a natural instinct to math, partially because I was a Chinese American male, and because it fits stereotypes, right, of who is and who isn't good at math.

Robin Chenoweth: And here’s the fallout. He ran so hard away from those labels, that he could have bypassed mathematics altogether.

Theodore Chao: I actively tried to not engage in my own math courses, you know, much to my own detriment I think I floated through a lot of my precalculus my calculus courses doing the bare minimum because I didn't want to be stereotyped as the kid who always went to the board, who always got good grades. And so it wasn't until I got to college that I definitely felt a space to engage in math and some of the things that I loved doing again. And so, I declared computer science as my major, but also I double majored. I was also in the Film and Media Studies program, partially because I love media a lot but I also didn't want to completely situate myself in only the engineering program.

Robin Chenoweth: Which brings us back to the weeks and months after 9/11, when Chao’s landlord asked him to tutor his son. The boy’s name was Chris, and he was suffering the way many children do through his dreaded eighth-grade Algebra class.

Theodore Chao: And so this poor kid was just following along copying the notes and doing everything and then trying to do his homework and realizing that the problems in his homework were not exactly like his example problems in school and not knowing what to do, right? He was taught how to follow as opposed to given the opportunity to develop his own thinking and his own problem-solving ability.

Robin Chenoweth: Which gave Chao a point of comparison to his own middle school experience.  Chris’s class probably had a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 30. Chao’s learning was wholly different, because he had been identified as gifted at math and attended a high school that offered higher-level courses.

Theodore Chao: I saw immediately there's such a disconnect here because I was a child who because I was pushed into these honors courses, because I was pushed into these accelerated math classes, I was always in small groups and given opportunities to really think through and work with my peers to have a lot of fun with math. I had never myself experienced some math in which you were told what to do. You're told this is how you get the right answer and if you keep doing this procedure then you get the answer and that's all you need to understand. And I remember very specifically that I saw that there was a huge problem, right? Not just in in math but just in the way that society treats children. That only children who show promise, or children who fit a certain stereotype. are allowed to think, and everyone else is told to follow.

Robin Chenoweth: Tutoring Chris allowed Chao to see that math was being used as a gatekeeper in the American educational system. People who score well on achievement tests take algebra as early as seventh grade, which sets them on the path of taking higher-level classes in all subjects.  Those honors classes allow them a greater chance to score well on college placement tests, which gives them a better crack at getting into college. That same algebra class that Chris was fighting to pass? It’s the biggest arbitrator of who makes it into college, and who doesn’t. And whether Chris continued on to take another algebra class can correlate to how much he earns. The higher level the math, the higher his income, research shows. Chao began to obsess about how to teach Chris differently so that he could interact with the algebra on new levels.

Theodore Chao: This is the early days of the internet even, right? So it wasn't like today where you could find all sorts of YouTube videos and lesson plans online. I was scouring through all the texts really trying to get … of engaging him in really amazing deep algebra problems, not the standard problems that have one answer right of like, a train leaves Baltimore at this time and another train leaves Philadelphia this time, figure out when they meet. But problems that have multiple solutions or are complicated enough that you never really felt sure that you got it right. You just have to justify it. And that was fun.

Robin Chenoweth: Chao spent hours preparing lessons, putting off the freelance programming work that he was beginning to hate. In the chaos that was 2001/2002, it became clear that he had reached a crossroads. He could wait until he got hired by another startup, or he could use his knowledge, compassion and his own marginalization to make a change for others. So he enrolled in an alternative teaching certification program for New York City Schools.

Theodore Chao: I did an alternative certification that gave me an emergency credential, so that I was directly in the classroom. I basically had, I think 12 weeks of training in a summer. And then I was thrown into a classroom right away. And while I was in the classroom I was going to work on my master's part time two nights a week.
Robin Chenoweth: He was assigned to IS 318 in Brooklyn.
Theodore Chao: I taught at IS 318. Injino de Jostos Intermediate School in South Williamsburg sort of at the intersection of Williamsburg and Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York.

Robin Chenoweth: The same middle school that rapper Jay Z attended, and later the backdrop to his music video, Hard Knock Life.

Theodore Chao: In his music he talks a lot about the environment he grew up in, the Marcy projects, and places like that. And so I got to see what that community and what that world was like, beyond the stereotypes, and even beyond the sort of glorification that he uses in his music, about how rough and how difficult this neighborhood is and really see it for the vibrant community it was.

Robin Chenoweth: His students were African American, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Bangladeshi, Indian, Russian, Polish.

Theodore Chao: All mixed together in this one school in Brooklyn. And so it was fascinating to me, being in an environment in which you have these multiple generations of immigrant families, and all sort of shared under the banner that they're not white. Even a lot of the Polish students, what was interesting was, they ethically would be able to pass as white. But given the demographics of the school and the communities they’re from, they were definitely more positioned as new immigrants to the United States.

Robin Chenoweth: Chao quickly moved beyond the tropes of working in rough, drug-infested Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Theodore Chao: What I really saw in the communities that I was in is a really loving network of people who might have been first- or second-generation immigrants of communities who have been collectively together in New York for multiple generations, and a real shift, from one immigrant group to another.

Robin Chenoweth: The teachers, who were themselves second- and third-generation Irish, Italian or German immigrants who had grown up there, were now teaching children who were Caribbean, African and Asian immigrants.

Theodore Chao: It's the same story of American immigration retold, right, but with people who racially and ethnically look different.

Robin: His initial thought was, he’d go to IS 318 to learn to become a better teacher. But he quickly discovered that it wasn’t going to be that easy.

Theodore Chao: What I've learned is, that a lot of the curriculum that I have to teach, a lot of the things that I have to cover as a math teacher, are actually not really good for children's natural thinking. A lot of it is children having to learn how to regurgitate material. Like for instance, I remember having to do countless lessons on children being able to convert between ounces and cups and liters and all sorts of different measurements that, you know, in the world of 2020 everyone has a phone can just like ask their phone to do it for them.

Theodore Chao: I remember having this feeling as a teacher of like, what am I doing? What am I doing? Am I am I doing what I thought I would do? Am I actually helping children learn to become critical thinkers and become leaders of their own communities and be able to change the world around them? Or am I focusing on helping them become more and more obedient, to learn to stop questioning the world around them. To learn to stop making sense of the world around them and to just listen and follow?

Robin Chenoweth: And so Chao decided it wasn’t enough for him to teach. He wanted to change the way mathematics is presented to students. He began applying to PhD programs and then was offered funding to be a part of a research project at the University of Texas.

Theodore Chao: It ended up being a life-changing experience for me. I was able to focus fully on scholarship and unpack a lot of the things that I now know about how mathematics is taught and how it's taught in ways that actually depower a lot of children.

Robin Chenoweth: He learned a lot of things.  That standardizing a mathematics curriculum often takes power away from teachers who need to adjust their teaching to the dynamics of their particular classrooms.  And that after decades and decades, mathematics teaching remains formulaic, which misses the point of teaching children to think for themselves and do so creatively.

Theodore Chao: I’m not trying to say that they all do this, but I feel like a lot of times, what we’ve seen in urban elementary schools is teachers talking at the kids and telling them what to do, as opposed to opening up spaces for children to come up with their own thinking, their own reasoning and then valuing, and listening to that thinking.

Robin: Doing worksheets. Following procedures. Memorizing names of geometric shapes and algebraic formulas.

Theodore Chao: Okay everybody, today we're going to learn about polygons, so everybody knows that if it's a four-sided polygon it's a quadrilateral. If it's a five-sided polygon….”

Robin Chenoweth: The disconnected type of learning that a significant portion of people despise. It’s not the type of teaching that is going on in affluent schools, either. There, a more engaged teacher might say something like this:

Theodore Chao: “Hey, I have a bunch of rods here and like a bunch of marshmallows. Let's all create shapes together, and then why don't we try to figure out ways that we can categorize the shapes and talk about them?’ And then now children are not just engaged in shape creation, but also the categorization and really understand the complexity of the relationship between the number of sides, the number of angles, the size of the angles and how they come together. And then in the end, Oh, you know what, by the way, why don't we give a name for these four-sided shapes. And mathematicians use this term. We can use this term, or we can use our own term.’ And so when you have a space where children can play these and support things on their own, then the math becomes a lot more real to them, then it becomes a lot more significant and easy for them to remember.

Robin Chenoweth: Chao calls that brand of teaching the inquiry model. And his research shows it works to explain math to almost any child because it teaches them to figure out answers on their own. So why isn’t this highly engaging type of learning happening more, especially in struggling schools that serve marginalized children? Lack of resources and class size are two reasons. State testing pressures are another. But one major cause is that it requires a shift in thinking, because it’s not the way most of us were taught.

Theodore Chao: Many of us, we have never experienced teaching in a way, where we're given the ability to solve problems and think out loud and play. We've only experienced mathematics as being extremely procedural, and based on a teacher telling us what to do, and then being made to feel dumb or stupid because we didn't regurgitate an answer quick enough, right? This is a major issue with mathematics is that, I think the majority of Americans carry some form of trauma related to something that happened to them in a math class somewhere in their childhood.

Robin Chenoweth: So for all those who thought they had some sort of math deficit, a brain that just doesn’t work that way, let go of all that math phobia. We are all intuitively mathematicians, Chao says, because mathematics is integrated in our everyday lives in ways that we don’t even recognize. It’s all in the way that numbers and angles and data are presented.  That’s a message that marginalized students in particular need to hear. Chao’s prestigious new National Science Foundation early career grant will help him throw off the shackles of standard math teaching.  

Theodore Chao: What I found is that many of the narratives that we have, particularly the math problems that that our students see again and again and again in the curriculum, are oftentimes imaginary problems that exist within a very specific white middle class setting.

Robin: The number of parking spaces at the shopping mall. The distance between airport terminals. The angle of a bank shot striking the eight ball.  All those white, middle class norms that work their way into curriculum.

Robin Chenoweth: Chao’s study will put his film degree to work by using digital storytelling to make mathematics relevant to all kids. It stems from an observation he had at IS 318 in Brooklyn.

Theodore Chao: And I found that, my students would create problems based on their own worlds. They were so much more rich and so much more real. And it positioned that they themselves and their family members had deep mathematical knowledge. So my hope is grant is to be able to create some mechanism that children can create videos can create visual narrative stories of the rich mathematics that they encounter in their lives, in their communities and ways in which these stories can then be used by teachers to then have mathematical conversations in the classroom, and then everyone engages in problem solving.

Robin Chenoweth: He piloted the idea with a group of fourth graders. One student created a short video of her mother and aunts, bumping around their small kitchen to cook Sunday dinner for their combined families.

Theodore Chao: How they managed to cook seven dishes to all come out, hot and ready at the exact same time so that Dinner is ready to ea. The video is short but she just showed like the shorthand vernacular that the aunts and the mother are so used to, ‘Get the water boiling,’ Okay moving this you know and moving the greens from here to here? Yes. Okay is the oven ready? Once you know when we're going to preheat the oven? And there was so much intricate mathematics involved. Right? Oh, how many people are we going to have? Oh, you know, normally I make enough for four people but tonight we got 16 people so let me multiply this recipe by four times. And it's all flowing naturally in the kitchen. And the fourth grader’s there and documents a lot of it. She’s just videotaping the laughter, fun, and a lot of mathematical talk happening.

Theodore Chao: It was fascinating because, here was a little girl of color and her family, all presenting as mathematical people doing a really intricate math problem of figuring out how to cook all this food at the same time. And then doing it with a lot of confidence and a lot of joy and a lot of fun.

Robin Chenoweth: Chao premiered the video to the students and their families at a gathering. Afterward one student said to the little girl who created the video, ‘I never saw your mom as a mathematician.’ It was a full-circle moment for Chao.

Theodore Chao: Here it is, right? The representation matters. This child and these children in the classroom, seeing each other, not just seeing a mathematician or a math teacher as someone who stereotypically is a white or an Asian male, not seeing a teacher as having mathematical knowledge, but seeing that mathematical knowledge exists within the people like them, the role models they have in their communities, the people in their families. And then seeing the rich mathematics that happens in an everyday occurrence in household.

Robin Chenoweth: Which in some ways rights the wrong of Chao’s teachers singling him out and pointing him to mathematics as a child. It corrects the stereotyping. We are all mathematicians. The Black fourth grader and her aunts. The landlord’s son who needed to better relate to the algebra.  And the Chinese American professor, who, but for losing his job, almost missed out on helping people see how relatable and fun math can be, if only they are properly introduced to it.

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