Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Re-Envisioning Maths

This is my favorite bridge in the world. It's the Clifton Suspension Bridge designed and built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in Bristol and is about three miles from where I spent most of my life before emigrating to the US in 1977. Opened in 1864 it has stood the test of time for 150 years and is a testimony to the quality of the mathematics used by engineer Brunel.

But it has also stood the test of time aesthetically as it is as much a part of the scenery of the gorge as it was when it was built. A whole variety of bridge constructions could have served the purpose of getting people and animals from one side of the bridge to the other but none, I think, would have provided such an harmonious relationship between the acts and interactions of nature and human endeavor. Brunel did this by using the mathematical formulas and relationships available to  him.

In my last post I discussed the depressing outlook described by Elizabeth Green in her NYT article about why Americans Stink at Math. The Common Core may hold out hope for change but unless we can re-envision the way we see maths, especially in the elementary grades, I hold out little hope.

The way we have always taught math, and the way proposed by the Common Core is as a form of functional perseverance in which things have to be learned because "some day you'll need this" or because "somethings just have to be memorized" or "because this is the way math is" . There is no sense of seeing the wholeness or the inter-relatedness of mathematical facts and ideas, the pattern, the artistry and beauty in symmetrical relationships. It's like teaching children to read using only things they need to be able to read in order to function in life; how to read street signs, menus, instruction books, directions, how-to manuals and so on. It's like teaching children to read and write without anything creative; no poetry or story writing, no alliteration activities. We teach math as if we are teaching reading and writing without all the fun, motivational, exciting, adventurous and joyful aspects of those areas of skill development.

Why do we do that? Why does the Common Core not contain any standards related to the aesthetics of math that make the remembering and retention of the myriad facts so much easier?

With a nod to John Tapper it's time we solved for why.

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