Chasing Rabbits: A Lifetime of Mathematical Curiosity

Sunil Singh
3 min readOct 2, 2019

Curiosity is not some mere bullet point of a hopeful outcome of children learning mathematics — a bullet point that is fashionably wished for, but is realistically swapped for Cursing more often than not.

I started reading Ian Leslie’s book about Curiosity again. I first read it 5 years ago, when it first came out. Now, with my heavy investment in math education through a humanized lens, the words are resonating stronger, striking like a hot iron against math education’s coals.

Mathematics is not my only interest. Music, sports, traveling, food, wine, beer, photography, history, art, reading and writing also occupy my time. However, nothing stokes my imagination, curiosity, awe, and wonder as much as mathematics — especially the stuff which is wildly beyond my comprehension.

We talk a good talk about how important mathematics is in our lives, and how so many careers depend on sound mathematical knowledge. Great. But, if we were to do an honest audit of how much curiosity is nurtured in our classrooms, we would find that it is quite scant. In sobering correlation, with little surprise, we would find classrooms — especially middle school and up — teeming with unchecked anxiety and tension.

Curiosity not only does not exist in healthy amounts in the K to 12 curriculum, it cannot exist with current conditions — all predicated on a learning culture of performance, exhaustion, and seriously underwhelming practicality. Curiosity is a “free range” characteristic. It roams in all directions. Sometimes it hurtles towards something with excited and pointed quickness, other times it dawdles with infectious whimsy. And often, especially in mathematics, it ponders and wonders within a radius of mortal capabilities.

A radius that allows us to see many rabbits, but realistically capture very few, if any.

We are not chasing rabbits — down their rabbit holes — in mathematics. We are building petting zoos, and giving students guided tours of some of the most painfully boring ideas and experiences in mathematics.

My workshop at NCTM Regional in Boston was called Chasing Rabbits: Building a Lifetime Curiosity in Mathematics With Arithmetic. Below was one of the first slides.

It stumped almost all the audience. This wasn’t surprising as the two numbers seem quite dissimilar — especially with one being prime. Seems like an odd relationship.

Exactly! The sum of all the consecutive numbers from 1 to 19 give you not only the sum of 100, but one that forms a pleasing geometric square. Our collective experiences of mathematics have kept this particular math fact at a disappointing distance from all of us.

Next month, Chris Brownell, my co-author for Math Recess, and I will do a whole day workshop at The Museum of Mathematics on this very topic. We will also dive deep into the idea that Elementary mathematics is not elementary.

Here is an abbreviated, character description of Alice.

An adventurous, spunky, and levelheaded seven-year-old who jumps into a dream world.

Shouldn’t every student be Alice and be given opportunities to jump excitedly and wholeheartedly into the dreamy and psychedelic world of mathematics?

Their future depends upon it…