Math has a bad rap, writes math professor Manil Suri in a recent New York Times op-ed, and would be better geared to students as a playful and stimulating subject of ideas. Unfortunately, that’s not at all what our culture currently embraces.
“Sadly, few avenues exist in our society to expose us to mathematical beauty,” Suri writes. “In schools, as I’ve heard several teachers lament, the opportunity to immerse students in interesting mathematical ideas is usually jettisoned to make more time for testing and arithmetic drills. The subject rarely appears in the news media or the cultural arena.”
While research suggests that improving self-efficacy and providing math-positive role models can help spark interest and stave off math anxiety, what some mathematicians and teachers are looking for reaches beyond surviving or tolerating math class, but helping connect students to mathematics beauty. Suri wants students to “fall in love” with math, and suggests that maybe our entire approach to math is upside down, and deserves to be righted.
But how does a person fall in love with math? For too many, math class conjures up anxious worksheets filled with rows of unanswered problems. Students go along, seeming to perform the steps required — plug in the formulas, solve for x — without ever understanding what they’re doing, or why.
Cornell Math Professor and New York Times columnist Steven Strogatz, author of The Joy of x, said much of middle and high school math curriculum (which covers not basic arithmetic, but higher math) doesn’t appeal to students’ hearts, instead offering answers to questions that kids would never ask — which he calls “the definition of boredom.”
“When people want to learn about music, they’ve reacted to it, they love it and naturally want to learn more about it. They have their own questions,” Strogatz said. When introducing higher math to a group of curious young students, he suggests first “showing them math’s greatest hits” and allowing them to become fascinated; students then naturally come up with their own questions. Suri was on the right track, Strogatz said, when he suggested students learn something like the origin of numbers — because the first step is falling in love with the mathematical ideas behind the formulas and procedures.
Strogatz acknowledges that grasping the concepts of higher math can pave the way to many wonderful careers — many in the popular and highly needed STEM fields. But rationalizing to students that math improves reasoning skills or that “you’ll need it in the real world” are two strategies doomed to fail, he said, because they not-so-subtly suggest that math isn’t worth learning for its own sake, but parallels something more akin to “mental push-ups.”
“Have you ever asked why you need music?” Strogatz said. “You don’t need music. It’s nice to know about music. Why do you need to look at Picasso?” Perhaps when presented first as the story of how the universe works, math can become beautiful.
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Grabbing students’ hearts, however, is only the first step to falling in love with math. High school math teacher Dan Meyer realized his algebra classes needed a makeover, the subject of an inspiring TED talk in which Meyer takes a larger look at how math is taught. “We have defined math rather narrowly in the U.S. to mean memorizing procedures and performing them accurately and quickly,” he said. “Those are certainly important parts of mathematics, but they aren’t the only parts, or even the most important parts. We need to define math to include skills like prediction, argumentation, and systematic thinking. These are important skills to have whether you go into a STEM field or not.”
Instead of trying to make math less boring by inserting more interesting, youthful details, said Meyer, like “‘Justin Bieber’ or loosely pasting real-world contexts into word problems from the 1960s,” math needs to be accessible far more than it needs to be relevant. One large part of providing access to math concepts, he said, is helping students understand that math makes sense with or without the teacher, and that students can create and solve new problems without a textbook.
But would he go so far to try and convince his high school students that math is beautiful? “Math involves creation,” Meyer said. “You can add up different sets of numbers or attach different kinds of shapes together and create theories about the patterns you’re seeing. Math is personal. Those theories and how you express them is personal to you. ‘Beautiful’ is the sort of word that makes a lot of people who do math for a living seem crazy to those who don’t, but when you’re creating something that’s personal to you, I suppose that’s rather beautiful.”