In this monthly column, we speak with a notable member of the Western Canadian mathematics education community about their work and their perspectives on the teaching and learning of mathematics. This month, we had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Rick Seaman.
Rick Seaman is a retired professor of mathematics education at the University of Regina. Prior to completing his Ph.D. and beginning his 19 year teaching career at the University of Regina, Rick taught at the Regina Board of Education for 25 years, where he was instrumental in implementing the International Baccalaureate subsidiary and higher level mathematics programs at Campbell Collegiate. A year after defending his dissertation, Rick received the 1996 Wilfred R. Wees Doctoral Thesis Award from the Canadian College of Teachers.
Rick has also regularly volunteered his time coaching baseball and football, leading coaching clinics and coaching at levels ranging from youth teams to the Regina Red Sox and the University of Regina Rams. He held a variety of volunteer administrative positions, including serving as Commissioner of High School Hockey and President of the Regina Intercollegiate Football Coaches’ Association. He has been recognized multiple times for his devotion and passion for coaching. In 1997, the Saskatchewan Roughriders recognized him for encouraging and supporting amateur football in the province of Saskatchewan. More recently, he was honoured as the 2014 Football Canada Gino Fracas Award recipient presented to the CIS Assistant Coach of the Year and was the Special Guest at the 63rd Annual Luther Invitational Basketball Tournament in 2015.
Part I: Questions, Dissertation, Forks…
Before going on to teach mathematics in high school, you obtained both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in mathematics. What drew you to teaching at the high school level?
While I was a graduate student of mathematics at the University of Regina, I was on scholarship and teaching undergraduate mathematics classes. During the month of May, the year before I graduated with my Master of Arts degree in mathematics, I substitute taught high school mathematics at Martin Collegiate in Regina. During that month, I also volunteered to help coach the high school baseball team, and in the fall, the football team. After graduating the following spring, I was asked by a committee member to accompany him to the University of Alberta to work on a Ph.D. in mathematics. However, I chose to remain in Regina and obtain my Bachelor of Education After Degree at the University of Regina with a major in mathematics and a minor in physics. That fall, I began teaching mathematics in grades 8–12 at Campbell Collegiate in Regina.
Comment: Looking back, it is interesting how the last paragraph illustrates some of the forks we encounter in our journey down the road of life!
After twenty-five years of teaching mathematics in grades 8 through 12, you returned to university to earn a Doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction. Could you talk about the research that you did for your doctoral thesis (which would go on to win a National Doctoral Thesis Award in 1996), and why you decided to pursue a career in academia?
The award was a culmination of learning from students I had taught, mathematics education professors, colleagues throughout my career of teaching mathematics, and an academically strong cross-disciplinary dissertation committee chaired by supervisor Dr. Peter Hemingway of the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina.
Dissertation: “Effects of Understanding and Heuristics on Problem Solving in Mathematics”
Abstract: The study was designed to investigate the effect of an integrated approach to daily instruction in problem solving on problem understanding, problem representation and solution, and heuristics of students enrolled in a first-year university mathematics class. Two first year mathematics classes (one instructed and one comparison), participated in the 12-week study. The instructed group (n = 21) practised several cognitive strategies based on problem representation and solution and applied these cognitive strategies to three mathematical structures. Each class focused on the knowledge needed to represent and solve problems, but the comparison group (n = 28) approached representation less systematically. The instructed students’ problem representations and solutions were assessed analytically by means of a structured worksheet. The instructed group was significantly better in their problem understanding, problem representation and solution, and use of heuristics than the comparison group. A transfer task was administered upon conclusion of the course and a maintenance task seven weeks after course completion. The instructed group showed transfer on relational and proportion isomorphic problems. The transfer task was maintained over time. Overall, the results supported an integrated approach to daily instruction in problem solving. Further research is suggested to expand this beginning knowledge base.
Another fork in the road: Upon graduation, my wife and I took about a month to accept an offer to be seconded from the Regina Board of Education to the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina to teach mathematics education. This led to another fork in the road two years later, when I needed to decide whether to apply for a full-time tenure track appointment at the assistant professor level in mathematics education in the Faculty. I applied, and my application was successful.
Comment: Former K-12 colleagues regularly ask me what it was like to be at the university, and my response is, “I enjoy what I am doing, but I miss where I have been.”
During your career, you must have observed many changes in mathematics education in the province and in the country. Could you talk about how the teaching and learning of mathematics has evolved since the 1970s, when you began teaching? What do you know now that you wish you had known as a beginning teacher in the 1970s?
After you teach for a while, some ideas appear to be cyclic or repackaged (e.g., the discovery approach, the inquiry-based approach, and teaching with Three-Act Tasks). What I wish I had realized earlier in my career was the importance of taking more time to make a question “irresistible,” as Dan Meyer put it in his video on “Real-World Math” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRMVjHjYB6w). It is also interesting to note that in graduate school, “What is your question?” is a familiar query that grad students often hear from others.
A counterexample to my cyclic conjecture: The New Math! 🙂
Full disclosure: Today, I wished I had read the book How To Solve It written by Stanford professor George Polya after I purchased it for my undergraduate mathematics education class, even though I realized later in my career that one had to teach mathematics in the field for four or more years to gain a deeper appreciation as to what the author was writing about in that book. I later made up for not reading it as a student many times over. 🙂
Recent and ongoing developments in pedagogy that I’m excited about: The advent of social media and its possibilities for gaining and sharing knowledge, collective intelligence, learning networks, authentic learning (Twitter), flipped classrooms, critiquing mathematical pedagogy (YouTube, Kahn Academy), blogging, WolframAlpha’s impact on teaching mathematical content…
Quote: “The smartest person in the room, is the room.” David Weinberger 🙂
Pedagogic satisfaction: To give one example, when a student comes to you and says, “You know, I had a problem at home that I was trying to solve. It was just proportional!”
Pedagogic accomplishment: As a teacher, you know that you have met a lofty goal if students understand what you mean when you state at the beginning of class, “You’re not going to learn anything new today.” 😉
Math anxiety is an issue among both children and adults that has only recently (relatively speaking) been receiving the attention it deserves. You’ve discussed the phenomenon in some of your own work (e.g., Seaman, Corbin-Dwyer, & Nolan, 2001; Seaman, Nolan, & Corbin-Dwyer, 2001). What do you think teachers of mathematics can do to reduce math anxiety among their students? Speaking more generally, why should mathematics teachers in particular be concerned about the affective domain of their teaching, and what is the difference between “teaching people” and “teaching content”?
Regarding “teaching people,” “teaching content,” and the affective domain, initially I would direct the reader to the article: “Let’s talk about our ideas” on pages 60–67 in the Special Edition of vinculum [Volume 4, Issues 1&2 – Ed.].
To be a bit more specific, I will attempt to illustrate the difference between “teaching people” and “teaching content” with an example. It is always interesting when you meet/hear from a student a number of years later to note what they remember from having you as their teacher/coach. Yes, they might mention the content they have learned, or that you wore sandals, but you will notice that there is more:
Student: “He (Mr. Seaman) is one of the five influential people who helped shape my life. He threw out challenges and encouraged his students in ways that were effective and meaningful. I “got” calculus in grade 12 because of him and it has laid the foundation for almost everything since.” Campbell Reunion, July 2015
You have coached football, including the University of Regina Rams, for many years. Clearly, your passion for football carried over into your teaching – in one of your articles published in the most recent issue of vinculum, you wrote about how you brought data from the field into the classroom to motivate discussions about data management. (In fact, this issue – which is dedicated to Dr. Seaman’s work, is a treasure trove of interesting real-world applications of mathematics.) How else has your experience as a coach affected your teaching of mathematics at the university and/or the undergraduate level? Inversely, (how) has mathematics affected your coaching?
I answered a similar question when honoured at the 8th Annual University of Regina Rams Alumni Night last year. A question was directed to me on stage by an alumnus: “You have coached both offense and defense, which position would you prefer to coach in football after all these years?” My response was “I don’t coach positions – I coach people.”
This quote from University of Regina Rams head coach Frank McCrystal might also shed some light: “Rick has been a totally committed coach from the first day he stepped on the field. He combines teaching methodology with classroom instruction and on-field practicum. He’s exceptionally prepared with a clear vision of what he intends to communicate.”
As a teacher, I have always been concerned with pedagogic detail, whether in the classroom or on the field.
Part II: Keeping the Dust off the Dissertation and Furthering the Conversation
How has your research been applied in the field of mathematics education (and, perhaps, beyond)? Through what avenues did you share your research with others in the mathematics education community?
I have had the cognitive strategies adopted by instructors in classes from disciplines other than mathematics. For example, Dr. Marie Iwaniw from the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Regina said the strategies have been useful for her students: “The students have developed problem-solving skills that they can apply to other mathematically-oriented material.” She added, “They have told me the problem solving methods presented in the strategy have helped them,” and “I see the evidence of this when I evaluate their work.”
The following (a partial list) were opportunities to keep the dust off the dissertation and further my conversations with educators about its pedagogic implications:
Talking about connections. (2012). Presented at the 2012 Canadian Mathematics Summer Meeting, Regina, SK.
Problem solving and metacognition. (2010). Presented at the Prince Albert Grand Council Numeracy Focus Group Meeting, Prince Albert, AB.
Using a thinking strategy as a vehicle between the space of the classroom, the space of students’ mathematical thinking and our teaching. (2009). In Proceedings of WestCAST 2009, University of Victoria, BC.
Can I take these activities home to share? No one will believe it! (2008). In C. Kesten (Ed.), Proceedings of WestCAST 2008, Regina, SK.
Representation and conjecturing in mathematics. (2004). Presented at Sciematics 2004, 21st – 23rd October, Saskatoon, SK.
Real-world problems: A judgment call for middle school mathematics teachers. (2003). Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 3(2), 275-279.
Making connections to facilitate deeper and lasting understanding in mathematics. (2002). Presented at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Canadian Regional Conference, Regina, SK.
‘It wasn’t something I was a part of ’: Women’s experience of learning math and science. (2001). With K. Nolan & S. Corbin-Dwyer in Proceedings of WestCAST 2001, University of Calgary, AB.
Effects of cognitive strategy instruction on students’ attitudes and beliefs toward problem solving and mathematics. (2000). Presented at WestCAST 2000, University of Regina, SK.
Encouraging expert-like thinking in mathematics. (1999). In J. G. McLoughlin (Ed.), Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Canadian Mathematics Education Study Group (p. 126), St. Catharines, ON: Brock University.
Have I seen a problem like this before? (1998). Paper presented at Focus 98, Regina, SK.
Cognitive strategy instruction in undergraduate mathematics education. (1997). Paper presented at the Second Annual Conference on Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education, Mt. Pleasant, MI.
Part III: The Journey to the Question
Earlier, you noted that “What is your question?” is a familiar query posed to graduate students. Would you say that your research throughout the years was driven by one (or several) underlying question(s) about the teaching and learning of mathematics? If so, how did you come upon it?
How many times have you heard a teacher say to a student, “WHY DON’T YOU THINK?” I have always wondered what the response would be if the student went blink-blink, and responded by asking the teacher “What do you mean by think?”
Upon returning to the campus after internship, all mathematics interns are responsible for writing a reflection paper about their internship experiences as an assignment for their last mathematics education class. One of the memorable papers that I received was written by a mathematics education student from ‘southern’ Saskatchewan who interned in La Loche in 2007.
After reading and discussing this student’s paper, I added the option of an Introduction to Cree, Dakota, Dene, other Indigenous language to the Indigenous Studies requirement of the Secondary BEd Program Mathematics Major at the University of Regina. Both of us also believed that this reflection paper should be published, but unfortunately, after many attempts we were unsuccessful.
A few years later, in 2010, I was invited to present to the Prince Albert Grand Council Numeracy Focus Group Meeting a session on “Problem Solving and Metacognition.” Afterwards, while I was reflecting on the session, I came to the conclusion that something was missing.
Yet another year later, in the fall, two educators dropped by my office to ask the following question: “How would you teach mathematics to First Nation and Inuit male youth with mental health or addiction problems?” My response was, “I wouldn’t!” Continuing the discussion, I learned that these youth came from both on and off the reserve, where some didn’t attend school while others had variable academic success. This led to a conversation about a horizontal curriculum (the precedence of cultural instruction within the classroom), with mathematics permeating each subject area and the “Creation Story” (see, e.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qn0zJ1QH2Zc) central to all teachings and experiences.
To give one example example, one activity the youth were involved in was making their own hand drum. The youth learn the process from the sweat before the hunt for hides, and use this knowledge to make their own hand drum. When they have all made their own personal hand drum, they are shown how much mathematics was used to make the hand drum, its relevancy, and – more importantly – that they could do the mathematics involved! Embedded in the lessons are values such as trust.
Like everything else in life, when you look back, you see a journey that consciously or unconsciously leads to the “irresistible” question that becomes a catalyst for your research. In this case, the resulting research could benefit not only La Loche, but also other communities.
In wrapping up this interview, I would like to come back to one of your earlier statements, where you said (speaking about your transition to the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina after 25 years as a classroom teacher), “I enjoy what I am doing, but I miss where I have been.” Does this still apply today? What do you miss about teaching at the high school or university level?
If I returned to teach at the high school level I would say the same thing, but the other way around. I am a teacher.
How do you carry on the work of teaching today, in your retirement?
I have interesting conversations with researchers and professionals about their work, or in general, about why we teach mathematics.
Thank you, Dr. Seaman, for this opportunity to discuss your work. We look forward to continuing the conversation in the future.
Seaman, C., Corbin-Dwyer, S., & Nolan, K. (2001). Breaking the cycle: Only 1920 more years to equity. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 23(7), 19-34.
Seaman, C., Nolan, K., & Corbin-Dwyer, S. (2001). ‘It wasn’t something I was a part of ’: Women’s experience of learning math and science. In Proceedings of WestCAST 2001, February 21st – 24th, University of Calgary, AB.