Joel Arenas, Mindanao State University

Finding Connections between Mathematics and Peace

Joel Arenas during his PhD studies.

Joel Arenas was born and raised in Maguindanao province, Philippines, and he has witnessed the province’s long struggle for lasting peace. So while his academic studies and teaching have focused on mathematics, he also has a vision of helping his province attain peace. “This made me pursue a study on peace education when I took up my master’s degree in mathematics education,” he said, which gave him innovative ideas to introduce in the classroom. The concept of integers is one example. “Integers are defined as whole-valued positive or negative numbers or zero, and I link this definition to the human behavior of responding to positive and negative circumstances,” he explained. “Sometimes when we encounter two opposing or conflicting groups, it is better not to take sides – instead, we need to be an agent of peace between the two.”

Dr. Arenas recently earned his PhD in mathematics education at the Education University of Hong Kong, with the support of the United Board’s Faculty Scholarship Program and the Philippines’ Commission on Higher Education (CHED). His course of study enabled him to develop skills in quantitative and qualitative research methods, which, he said “will be useful for the rest of my career.” An elective course on research and issues in mathematics learning enabled him to pursue further study of human behavior, and his research culminated in his dissertation topic: positive education in learning and teaching mathematics.

A positive education intervention at Maguindanao National High School was part of Joel Arenas’ research study.

“Positive education involves the study of happiness and well-being to inspire students, teachers, schools, and societies to better develop and flourish,” he said. “It helps students have a more positive outlook about their existence and, through their participation in class, they can reduce their anxiety.” That kind of caring approach is especially valuable in Maguindanao. “There is a high level of anxiety among Mindanao State University students,” he said. “Most of them come from underprivileged backgrounds, and socioeconomic struggles are a key source of this anxiety.” Math concepts can give students a way to work through their anxiety – for example, through exploring constants and variables. “Life should be a matter of helping others – that’s a constant,” he said. “The circumstances under which we live and the implications of our decisions – those are variables.”

Students are initially surprised by Dr. Arenas’ approach to teaching. “They tell me, ‘You are teaching this lesson like a father – instructing us on life and happiness,’” he said. His response reveals much about his vocation as a teacher and his commitment to whole person education. “Not everyone goes to school with a happy heart, so I want to make the classroom friendlier and show students that teachers care, that they belong in this environment, and that they are accepted.”