On being a mathematician and telling good math stories

George Gadanidis writes:

Looking in the mirror of society to explain why children cannot be (or would not want to be) mathematicians, we might see two unflattering images: “math sucks” and mathematicians are geeks”. Of course, mathematics is beautiful and mathematicians are cool, but these appear to be secrets that we, the mathematics community, somehow keep to ourselves. How might we share the beauty of mathematics and the coolness of being a mathematician with a wider audience?
At a symposium in 2004, Apostolos Doxiadis, a mathematics prodigy who eventually became a filmmaker and author, said that mathematics education will not change unless what counts as mathematics first changes—what counts as mathematics needs to include the stories of doing mathematics.
Story and audience form the cornerstones of the mathematics classroom work discussed in this article. Put in the simplest terms, our starting point for collaborative lesson planning is to imagine a good mathematics story to be shared by our students with family and friends and with the wider community: a story that will offer a new and wonderful perspective on a mathematical concept, that will create an opportunity for mathematical surprise, that will engage emotionally, and will offer a sense of mathematical insight and beauty.” (p.20)

“Papert (1980) states, “Children begin their lives as eager and competent learners. They have to learn to have trouble with learning in general and mathematics in particular” (p. 40). What is it about the school mathematics experience that turns eager mathematics learners into mathematics avoiders? Higginson (2008) calls it “smath, it’s school math, it’s a very strange variant on mathematics, and I don’t like it very much.” Higginson elaborates that school mathematics is not about “the power of mathematical ideas” or “the beauty of mathematical concepts.”
There are powerful and beautiful mathematical ideas that have intrigued mathematicians across history which have the potential to capture young students’ intellectual interest and imagination, such as, for example, Zeno’s paradoxes concerning infinity and limit, Euclid’s Parallel Postulate and non-Euclidean geometries, and Descartes’ bridging of algebra and geometry. However, in mathematics curricula, it seems that such ideas are somehow not appropriate for young children. But why do we think that young children might not be ready for concepts such as these? Or, putting it another way, why do we have such faith in the curriculum sequence that we have created? I think part of the answer lies in the legacy left to us by the work (or the interpretation of the work) of Jean Piaget, and our resulting emphasis on young children being concrete thinkers and not ready for abstract concepts.
Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, which were developed in an era when there was a paramount focus on the classification of individuals, dominate in primary education (Egan, 2002; Walkerdine, 1984).” (p.20)

Story is not a frill that we can set aside just because we have developed a cultural pattern of ignoring it in mathematics. Story is a biological necessity, an evolutionary adaptation that “train(s) us to explore possibility as well as actuality, effortlessly and even playfully, and that capacity makes all the difference” (Boyd, 2009, p. 188). Story makes us human and adds humanity to mathematics. Boyd (2001) notes that good storytelling involves solving artistic puzzles of how to create situations where the audience experiences the pleasure of surprise and insight. Solving such artistic puzzles may not be commonplace in mathematics pedagogy and it may not always be easy, but the mathematical beauty that results gives so much pleasure.” (p.26)

Ref: (italics in original) Gadanidis, G. (2012). Why can’t I be a mathematician? For the Learning of Mathematics, 32(2), 20-26.

Reference is to: Boyd, B. (2001) The origin of stories: Horton hears a Who. Philosophy and Literature 25(2), 197-214.
Boyd, B. (2009) On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Higginson, W. (2008) Interview. Available at http://www.edu.uwo.ca/dmp/Higginson.
Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. New York, NY: Basic Books

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, Teaching excellence, Understanding Education, Understanding numeracy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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