I have been in the space of math education for over 30 years.
I have taught in tough, urban schools and an IB School in Switzerland. I have been going to math conferences for 20 years. While sometimes these conferences have had words “joy” in their conference themes, the word “beauty” has rarely been incorporated. I did a Google search, and only this came up.
One month back in 2020.
So, the idea of beauty in mathematics has never been a predominant theme. Well, to be blunt, it never has had the right conditions for it to blossom in schools. Just think of flowers and vegetation. There are certain climate conditions that must exist for some of the world’s most beautiful flowers. Bird of Paradise, native to South Africa, is one such example.
Math education knows its Achilles Heel — it is a parched environment for mathematical beauty. Beauty can only be a rarely invited guest into K to 12 mathematics. It has no permanent home, or hosting duties.
All we have to do is look at the current landscape of math education. Go ahead. Try to find any reference to beauty in learning mathematics. It’s all but gone. The entire emphasis is on pedagogy, systems, structures, and equity within those ideas.
In previous blogs I have clearly mentioned that mathematics is dead. What I really should have said is that the illumination of the beauty of mathematics is dead. Delivery models of instruction and over infatuation with ChatGPT/AI are now inadvertently doing gatekeeping duties — to ensure that beauty never comes back.
There was a time when mathematics was romanticized in schools. Now it’s mostly a commodity to be traded on the STEM market. There is no internal vector for learning math. It’s all external output to be glorified cogs in societal/economic needs.
Ironically, this also means ideas like “Back to Basics” and Science of Math have lots of traction in North America. I say that, because such a Spartan serving of mathematics is also going to not give as robust understanding of mathematics as would a deep dive into it’s beauty.
None of the preceding movements are going to touch upon the history of math, current endeavours, or future problems. It’s going to be an echo chamber of memorizing times tables, doing long division, and getting degrees in fractions and factoring.
Factual fluency is very important. But knowing 6 x7 is 42 is not as interesting or valuable as knowing that 2 x 3 x 7 is 42. Breaking numbers down into prime constituents has many benefits, namely being able to create multiplication math facts for any number. Here, if you take out any number, let’s 3. Multiply the other two, 2 x7, and you get 14. Now throw 3 back in there. 14 x 3 must equal 42.
But, most importantly it is a time machine to the past of mathematics and to the future of mathematics. Some of the most famous unsolved math problems revolve around primes. Reimann Hypothesis and The Goldbach Conjecture being two of the more famous one.
Do we want our children to be inspired to learn mathematics for a lifetime? The answer should be unequivocally “yes”. But, if beauty isn’t go to prioritized, don’t we have some reckoning to do that our actions are not matching our words.
And, they never have.
We even see something like “math anxiety” being inevitable, as some kind of tax for students to take on when learning the subject. And, then we try to create a whole host of strategies to overcome it.
The attrition rate of student disinterest in mathematics has never been a consideration. Just Google “I hate math”
Math anxiety isn’t the problem, as that occurs farther up the road in middle school.
Math alienation is the problem. Children begin to find it boring in elementary school. And, this is where Back to Basics and Science of Math are ensuring that happens even more now.
There is no realistic, corrective measure in the system. It’s too late. We’ve bought into a sterile, impersonal efficiency for teaching and learning mathematics.
The only correction left is to build something new…