Friday, September 23, 2011

Sierpinski and the Joys of Learning Math

Many years ago I used to conduct regular Math Nights at local area schools to help parents develop an understanding of the new math program their children were using in schools and the type of math their daughters and sons were likely to bring home in K - 6th grade. They were nearly always lively events with teachers running parents through the math activities their children did in class and me finishing the evening with a Q&A session.

Earlier this week I was at Flynn school where I have two student teachers and as I walked the hallways to their classrooms I noticed some eye catching posters advertising the upcoming Math Night in October to which everyone in the school community was invited. What caught my eye was the Sierpinski triangle, a fractal, as shown in the picture, displayed on many of the posters.. There were also some posters with Escher-like tessellations all designed to catch the eye of the passer-by. Fractals (PBS- Nova), once thought of as a curiosity or an extreme art form, are now being used as mathematical models to explain all kinds of things in the natural world.

But there was more to these posters than just announcements. The work of Karyn Vogel, the Flynn and C.P.Smith schools math professional development coordinator, they were also communicating the aesthetic component of math, a critically important element if we are ever going to help students enjoy math for what it is, the science of pattern. Imagine learning to read and write without poetry, fiction, literature and creative writing? Imagine if the only thing we learned in language arts was the ability to read directions and write formal descriptions? Imagine if reading and writing were reduced to a purely utilitarian function?

I spent the day today at a conference on teaching math to children who struggle to learn math. The presenter was excellent but he made the points that "math ain't easy" and that "math learning has no ceiling". Learning to read is extremely difficult for many children, so is learning science or social studies. In fact, everything can be difficult in some way for some children. I also cannot think of a subject that has a "ceiling". One can study for a PhD, and beyond, in almost anything. If math was made as motivating to learn and as interesting as language life would be very different.

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