The message of the moment is that Mathematics is beautiful and mathematics is playful. In my social media bubble of mathematics teachers the over-riding picture is of the joy of mathematics. I see puzzles and brainteasers aplenty on Facebook and Twitter. Mathematics educators strive to dispel the cloud of pain and drill that surrounds maths for far too many people. This site and our social enterprise are called Creative Maths, because we wish to create a world of mathematicians.
The joy of maths is a wonderful message, that resonates with people like me, who already love maths.
The joy of maths is NOT a message that works for everybody.
Once a person has been put off maths as a child, it takes more than telling them that maths can be fun and beautiful to engage them. A frequent alternative message is that mathematics is useful and practical, that we need mathematics in our jobs, and to do our budgeting and to measure our house for paint quantities. This practical view is provided as the balancing view to the beautiful mathematics message. Indeed, for some people, the message of usefulness works, but for others pragmatism seems a bit dull.
For some people mathematics is beautiful, joyful and playful. For some people mathematics is useful and practical.
I suggest a third, complementary message: Mathematics is powerful
At a global level, mathematics saves lives, powers the internet, improves our daily lives and will save the human race from destruction.
At a local level, mathematics enables businesses to prosper, allows us to find our way, helps us make sensible food decisions and allows us to create works of art.
For my husband, the flame of interest was lit at the age of thirteen when he learned that he could find the height of a tree using just an angle and measuring the distance to the base of a tree. “What magic is this?”, he asked himself. Interesting that he chose land surveying as his career!
For someone else the magic was in the absolute truth of some aspects of mathematics. A triangle with sides of 3, 4 and 5 will always have a right angle. This relationship helped ancient people to make buildings square.
For me the flame was lit when I learned about the ability of mathematics to model real-life processes to help with decision-making. I can work out the best mix of feeds to provide animals with optimum nutrition. I can schedule tasks so that the total elapsed time of a project is minimised and waiting time is reduced. I can calculate the number of servers needed for a given service level at a bank or a call-centre. I can use a model to maximise the number of scientific expeditions within a single season, bearing in mind all the complex needs and interactions. I can work out ways to make better use of hospital resources. I can provide a tool for people to discuss the location of a landfill, taking feelings into account as well as facts. All of these examples are from operations research, which is known as “The Science of Better”.
Here are some examples of the power of mathematics, that may work for you, or for your learners:
So as well as letting our learners know that mathematics is fun and joyful and beautiful, let us make sure they also know that mathematics is powerful, and that they can tap into that power.
Teaching mathematics and statistics is an act of social justice.
I would love to hear from you. What lit your flame of interest in mathematics? To the teachers: What examples have you used in your classes that have engaged different students?