Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Math, Truth, and Language

I am teaching a class on K-12 nonfiction for my MLIS students and this week we looked at math books. As usual, some students talked about how they always disliked math, especially because it was not "creative." That term had two meanings -- math did not allow the interpretive wiggle room they enjoyed in English and perhaps Social Studies; and, they saw math as rules set in stone -- no horizon of invention and change. In one way math judged them -- they got a quiz, a test, an equation right or wrong -- in another way math had no place for anyone, no invention, inquiry, discovery -- while the internet bubbles daily with new medicine, new science, new biology, even new geo-political challenges. I suggested that look at math in a different way, as a language.

No one studies French, Mandarin, for that matter English Language Arts, in order to conjugate verbs or master reflexive pronouns. You learn all of that so that you can read poetry, order dinner in Paris, study abroad in Beijing. The rules phase, and ongoing study of vocabulary, idioms, subtle use of language, is all a base to allow you to use the language. Well it is the same with math. The math students learn up to High School is the two-thousand-year-old basis of Math Language. When you get to Calculus you reach the 17th Century. All of that training in the terms, uses, syntax of math can/should allow you to see the extremely lively creativity going on in math right now. Now you might say -- what good does it do a 5th grader to know that if s/he makes it to college or grad school as a math major, there are cool bits ahead. No.

Any of us can be introduced to the kinds of questions, thinking, challenges, that engage mathematicians today. I'm enjoying Jordan Ellenberg's How Not to Be Wrong; The Power of Mathematical Thinking, which is quite witty, plain-spoken, and gives hints of some of that current thinking. At any age we can find out, and then communicate to young people, that math is a glorious adventure -- an exploration of what is knowable. For some math appeals when linked to real world issues (several of my students mentioned this). But for others (for me, to be honest) math becomes more exciting the more abstract and almost theological it becomes -- as it probes for what can be known, or shown, to be true.

If I were the god of professional development for elementary school teaches and librarians, I would have everyone devote one session a year to frontiers of math -- math as creative exploration. Not so that every third grade teacher was ready to teach non-Euclidean geometry but so that that same teacher began to experience math not as the double judge -- judging her, and sealed off -- but as creative exploration going on right now, in which all young people are both invited to join the party, and can, indeed must, learn the basis of mathematical thinking. 


  1. Understanding math as a creative exploration is urgently needed. It would be so motivating. We teachers need to better understand the beauty and appeal of this subject. I always wondered why I had to learn geometry. I saw no need for it at all, but how could that be? Every problem I had to solve was just that--A PROBLEM TO SOLVE and then as a reward, I get another problem to solve!

  2. Marc, This is perfect and we can make this one of our focal points of our next series of workshops on the Common Core and STEM. Providing hands-on opportunities in elementary classrooms is NEEDED on a regular basis. Kids are creative and given the opportunities to move around the classroom and do this with things like Raspberry PI or Legos or... will elevate all of STEM at this level.