Sunday, August 28, 2011

7 Ate 9

There's wonderful sign on a railway station in Durham, England that points the way to 'Platforms 1 to 3". We'll never know if the person responsible for that sign had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek (knowing British railways of the last century one can assume with 100% certainty it was a 'he') or not. But this wonderful example of math word play snapped by my colleague Prof. Valerie Bang-Jensen in the Word Garden, part of the SMC Teaching Gardens, clearly shows the work of a person with an appreciation for the more creative aspects of mathematics.

I have always thought the the inclusion of the aesthetics of math in the study of math makes it more user-friendly. For 250 years the math curriculum in public schools has suffered from a dearth of creativity brought about by the pragmatic need for all students to be able to "do the math". If we were to approach reading and the language arts with the same austerity with which we treat math there would be no creative writing, no poetry or anything else to relieve the monotony of decoding the written word. The "arts" in language arts help us recognise the beauty of language, the subtle variations in meaning, alliteration and other properties of language which enable us to make it personally meaningful and significant. Sadly there are virtually no equivalent properties of math. A review of the new Common Core standards illustrates just how sterile and uncreative our culture expects mathematics education in schools to be.

So I rejoice when I see an example of a kindred spirit, someone who is being linguistically creative with math, and I live in hope that one day we will be able to make the study of math as creative and personally meaningful as the study of language.

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