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Thursday, December 29, 2016

When Are We Ever Gonna Use This?

Raise your hand if you have ever heard this question, “When are we ever gonna use this?” When I was a young teacher, I tried hard to answer. I used to give my students (junior high and high school) examples of math problems from various occupational fields. I bought a large poster that listed many occupations along the top and many mathematics topics along the side with black dots showing exactly which occupations use which topics.

Years passed. Film projectors gave way to Youtube videos. Mimeograph machines gave way laser printers. Whole new field of occupations emerged. I metaphorically threw up my hands in exasperation. When the inevitable question arose, I answered that I had no idea how they were going to use this information. I had no idea how their interests would develop, or which occupations they would pursue, or what the jobs of the future would be. All I could do was teach them a little bit of what had taken thousands of years for people to discover about math. My students were not always satisfied.

Then Paul Lockhart came along and wrote “A Mathematician's Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form.”

Now I had an answer that captured their imaginations:

“In any case, do you really think kids even want something that is relevant to their daily lives? You think something practical like compound interest is going to get them excited? People enjoy fantasy, and that is just what mathematics can provide -- a relief from daily life, an anodyne to the practical workaday world….People don’t do mathematics because it’s useful. They do it because it’s interesting … The point of a measurement problem is not what the measurement is; it’s how to figure out what it is.”

The question of the usefulness of any particular subject stems from the mutual internalization of both the teacher and students of a questionable, yet unexamined assumption.

“To say that math is important because it is useful is like saying that children are important because we can train them to do spiritually meaningless labor in order to increase corporate profits. Or is that in fact what we are saying?”

Thus instead of teaching real mathematics, we teaching “pseudo-mathematics,” or what I have often called non-math, and worse, we use math class to accomplish this miseducation (See and others). According to Lockhart, we teach math as if we think “Paint by Number” teaches art.

“Worse, the perpetuation of this “pseudo-mathematics,” this emphasis on the accurate yet mindless manipulation of symbols, creates its own culture and its own set of values….Why don't we want our children to learn to do mathematics? Is it that we don't trust them, that we think it's too hard? We seem to feel that they are capable of making arguments and coming to their own conclusions about Napoleon. Why not about triangles?

Math is like playing a game. As with any game, it has rules to be sure. However, it is more fun and more elegant than all other games because it is literally limitless.

Physical reality is a disaster. It’s way too complicated, and nothing is at all what it appears to be. Objects expand and contract with temperature, atoms fly on and off. In particular, nothing can truly be measured. A blade of grass has no actual length. Any measurement made in the universe is necessarily a rough approximation. It’s not bad; it’s just the nature of the place. The smallest speck is not a point, and the thinnest wire is not a line. Mathematical reality, on the other hand, is imaginary. It can be as simple and pretty as I want it to be. I get to have all those perfect things I can’t have in real life. I can never hold a circle in my hand, but I can hold one in my mind. […] The point is I get to have them both — physical reality and mathematical reality. Both are beautiful and interesting… The former is important to me because I am in it, the latter because it is in me.

Mathematics offers infinite possibilities for storytelling. I tell many stories as I teach math. My students are positively enchanted and remember them forever. One of my favorites is the kimono story.

I tell my students how in old Japan, servants helped geisha to put on the multiple layers of kimono. Each layer has to arranged and offset just so in order to reveal the colors of each layer. I tell them we are going to start with a geisha like 1/3. First we put on the 2/2 layer. 1/3 x 2/2 = 2/6. Notice that the geisha looks a little different, but underneath it is the same geisha. How about another layer, maybe 3/3. Okay 2/6 x 3/3 = 6/18. How about another 2/2 layer. 6/18 x 2/2 = 12/36. We can take off the layers one-by-one as well. This is called “simplifying a fraction.” Simplifying a fraction is simply a process of finding out which geisha is at the bottom of all those layers. If we are in a hurry, we can remove all the layers at once. How would we do that? In the case of our geisha, dividing by 12/12. The students love it.

The most elegant math story is the proof.

A proof is simply a story. The characters are the elements of the problem, and the plot is up to you. The goal, as in any literary fiction, is to write a story that is compelling as a narrative. In the case of mathematics, this means that the plot not only has to make logical sense but also be simple and elegant. No one likes a meandering, complicated quagmire of a proof. We want to follow along rationally to be sure, but we also want to be charmed and swept off our feet aesthetically. A proof should be lovely as well as logical.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful piece. I am not a 'math person' however I know just enough to realize its potential to fascinate and capture one's imagination.

    Every discipline has stories to tell, stories that when told by a teacher who is passionate and inspired by the discipline, will put 'fire in the belly' of their students. Read Jardine's "Curriculum in Abundance" and/or Parker Palmer's "Courage to Teach". I disagree (based on my experience as a teacher of Humanities) with this author that math is the only discipline that is limitless in its abundance to explore.

    "Relevance" (the response to: are we ever going to use this) is such a bland, uninspiring term to describe what is fascinating, mysterious, novel ... about each discipline. Young people are not inspired, motivated to learn something now in order to be able to use it later.

    Thank you for this post.