In my multivariable calculus class this year, we’ve been holding a regular “book club” during our long blocks. (Don’t ask… we have a rotating schedule and every seven school days we have a 90 minute class.) Right now we’re reading Edward Frenkel’s Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality.
In the introduction, Frenkel criticizes the teaching of math:
What if at school you had to take an ‘art class’ in which you were only taught how to paint a fence? What if you were never shown the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso? Would that make you appreciate art? Would you want to learn more about it? I doubt it.  … There is a common fallacy that one has to study mathematics for years to appreciate it… I disagree: most of us have heard of and have at least some rudimentary understanding of such concepts as the solar system, atoms and elementary particles, the double helix of DNA, and much more without taking courses in physics and biology. And nobody is surprised that these sophisticated ideas are part of our culture, our collective consciousness.
So many whirling thoughts came up while I was reading these passages. One thought led to another to another to another. Writing this post is an attempt to start recording them and to get them a little more codified in my mind! It is still going to be a hot discombobulated stream-of-consciousness mess. #sorrynotsorry
I wonder if I asked my kids “what is mathematics?” right now, what they would say. I am doubtful that their answers will include the adjectives and verbs that I personally would say.
I wonder if I asked my kids “what is is going on in the field of mathematics?” right now, what they would say. I’m guessing a lot of blank stares.
I wonder what my kids would say if I asked ’em “what courses exist in college for mathematics?”
I wonder what my kids would say if I asked them to name a mathematician who is alive?
I wonder if the word “mathematics” was changed to “astronomy” or “physics” or “biology” if their answers would be different.
There are ideas that my kids learn about modern physics (in popular culture, in classes) which spark their imagination, blow their minds, make them curious and full of wonderment at the weirdness and strangeness of the world. Special relativity. Quantum mechanics. Quarks and the structure of atoms. They are exposed to these ideas, even if they don’t have the mathematical capabilities or abstraction to attack them rigorously. And these ideas have a powerful effect on some kids. (I know I wanted to be a physicist when I first learned about these ideas!)
But what do my kids learn about modern mathematics — from school or popular culture? Are there any weirdnesses or strangenesses that can capture their imagination? Yes! Godel’s incompleteness theorem. Space filling curves. Chaos theory. The fact that quintic and higher degree polynomials don’t have a general “simple” formula always works like the quadratic formula. Fractals. Higher dimensions. Non-euclidean space. Fermat’s Last Theorem. Levels of infinity. Heck, infinity itself! Mobius strips. The four color theorem. The Banach-Tarski paradox. Collatz conjecture (or any simply stated but unproven thing). Anything to do with number theory! Anything to do with the distribution of primes! But do they capture students’ imaginations? No… because they aren’t exposed to these things.
Where in our curriculum do kids get inspired? Where does awe and beauty fit into things? When do we ever explicitly talk about beauty in mathematics? When a kid has a rush of insight and makes a visible gasp, what do we do in that moment? What has to already be in place for a kid to make that gasp?
We need to expand how we frame mathematics in high school so it isn’t seen as “Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Precalculus, and Calculus.” These course names aren’t mathematics.
We need to consciously and regularly introduce a bigger and more modern world of mathematics to our kids. How? Having kids read when the New York Times publishes an article about a mathematician or mathematical result! Using resources like Numberphile and Math Munch and Vi Hart videos. And… I don’t know.
We need to provide space and time for kids to explore an expanded vision of what math is, and have choice in having fun and playing with this expanded vision of math. (My explore math project is an attempt to do that — website here, and posts one, two, and three here.)
We need to have mathematical lore, stories we can tell students. Galois duel! Ramanujan’s inexplicable genius! What are mathematical stories that can be passed down from generation to generation? (Does a good resource exist for this? Tell me!) [Update: The internet went down when I was going to edit this post by mentioning we need stories and people who aren’t just white men!]
Do we have Feynman or degrasse Tyson-esque figures we can point to? Dynamic popularizers of the subject that have entered the public consciousness?
Maybe what I’m trying to say, if I had to distill everything down to the core, is:
(1) Can we find a way — in our existing schools with our set curricula and limited time — to expand kids notions of what mathematics is by exposing them to notions external to the Alg-Geometry-Alg II-Calc sequence. And if we can do this well, will it help inspire more kids to be interested in mathematics?
(2) Are there ways for us to keep an focus on beauty, the unexpected, awe, and wonderment in our classes? And find ways to record, highlight, and amplify those moments for kids when they happen? Why I love mathematics is because of all of these moments! Maybe focusing on them would help kids love mathematics?
UPDATE: Annie Perkins has a great blogpost which captures some of the exact same ideas and feelings here. But she’s more eloquent about it. So read it. Updating it here so it is archived for my own thinking on this.
 This notion has so many resonances with Paul Lockhart’s A Mathematician’s Lament. Which I highly recommend.