By Kelly Haggart
Professor Richard Barwell joined the University of Ottawa in 2006 and was director of graduate studies (English-language sector) in the Faculty of Education from 2012 to 2016. Before that, he worked as a high school math teacher in his native England, a VSO volunteer in Pakistan and a lecturer in education at the University of Bristol. The Gazette sat down with uOttawa’s newest dean to learn more.
Where were you in Pakistan and what were you doing?
There’s a road that goes from Islamabad, which is on the plains, through the mountains to China. I was three-quarters of the way along that road, at about 7,500 feet altitude, in the Hunza Valley. I was there for three years, before the Internet, so I communicated with my family by letter — they took two weeks to get home. The region had 15 schools created by people in the community who wanted their kids educated in English. For the first year, I taught math and science at one of those schools.
After that, I was asked to set up and run a resource centre for the schools, which were in different villages along the Hunza Valley. The Aga Khan Foundation, which ran a different network of schools in the region, lent me a jeep so that I could drive around the schools with crates of books and science equipment that teachers could borrow. I also organized workshops for local teachers.
How did you become interested in the role of language in learning and teaching math?
Many languages are spoken in Pakistan — I learned two of them to a reasonable standard. In my work, I was teaching math to children who spoke one or two of these languages at home, as well as Urdu, which is the national language. These kids were clearly learning mathematical concepts in English, their third or fourth language, but how did they do that? I ended up doing my PhD on this topic, focusing on children in the U.K. whose families spoke languages other than English.
Learning in a second language is sometimes seen as a deficit, as a language barrier, but I wanted to look at the question in a positive way. I started seeing the different ways children make sense of mathematics, even when it’s in a language they’re still learning. For teachers, the point is not to simplify the complex language of mathematics, but to support students in engaging with that complexity by drawing on their existing knowledge of the world and of language generally.
Some of your research links math education and climate change. What’s the connection?
Environmental and sustainability issues have concerned me for a long time. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about climate change and I thought, I need to do something about this. Climate change is a problem that requires citizen engagement, but what mathematics do citizens need to understand at some level to engage with it?
A lot of the math involved in climate change is not all that complicated — it’s basically averages and probability and understanding how modelling works. Engaged citizens need to be able to ask the right questions about the numbers around climate change and be able to spot dubious claims. Math teachers can help prepare kids to be those citizens. I’m working with colleagues to survey math teachers in Ontario and Norway to see if they’re including this topic in their classes and, if so, how?
What sets uOttawa’s Faculty of Education apart?
It’s our 50th anniversary this year, so the Faculty has been around for quite a while. We run teacher education programs in French and English, and are the major supplier of qualified teachers for Franco-Ontarian schools, with campuses in Ottawa, Toronto and Windsor. We also have a lot of expertise with e-learning and offer a fully online teacher education program in French and a professional master’s degree in both languages. We have MA, PhD and professional development programs. Our professors and many of our 650 graduate students do lots of really interesting research, and it’s increasingly international.
Something else that’s distinctive is our many partnerships. We work with the Ministry of Education, local school boards, hospitals, organizations representing la francophonie canadienne and Indigenous communities — we have particularly strong links with Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation. One of our international partnerships, a professional development program for English teachers from rural west China, is expanding and will almost double in size this summer.
How do you see education in general evolving?
The world is changing so rapidly, with digitalization, globalization and risks like climate change, that education needs to pay more attention to things like critical thinking, democracy and citizenship. We need to educate people to live together, and empower them to participate in democratic debate and understand the choices they’re making, both in politics and in their lives. To do that, they need to know the questions to ask — and if education teaches anything, it’s how to ask questions.
Richard Barwell ’s publications include Teaching Secondary Mathematics as if the Planet Matters and a short summary of research on ESL in the Mathematics Classroom.