Storytelling: The Dawn of a New Era in Math Education

Learning mathematics is not easy. Understanding it, I mean really drilling down to a subatomic level of understanding, is generally out of bounds for most of us. In fact, the greatest mathematicians are often resigned that they will be outlived by a new problem and its solution. The late John Conway said as much. He passed away on April 11. Saying his death was a great loss to the mathematical world would be an understatement. Almost immediately I started watching videos on Conway on YouTube. I wasn’t watching them so much to learn something new — which I was more than often — I was watching them to just hear his voice.

If John Conway would not have died, I highly doubt I would have found an absolute gold nugget of Conway storytelling. He is telling a story of Cantor that, as Conway tells the audience, very people know — that Cantor was the first person who tried to create a mathematical union. Along with with Felix Klein, they founded the International Congress of Mathematicians in the 1890’s. The story, suddenly, takes on an emotional weight for Conway. He begins to tear up — and tells the audience he is — when he talks about the French mathematicians, led by Henri Poincare, being initially absent from the first meeting in Zurich, 1897.

John Conway, University of Toronto 2017. Shedding tears in Storytelling.

John Horton Conway is showing his humanity and vulnerability not about his life, but about the very distant lives of others — through the magic of storytelling. His whole love for mathematics and its deep purpose for him is unveiled so casually and warmly in a piece of information that does not come close to the level of resonance to us as it obviously does with Conway. But, because it does, we are now more intimate with that piece of math history — and with the storyteller, John Conway.

Just moments after that, Conway starts to tell a story about going to Berlin in the late 80’s, just before the Wall fell. He then laughingly interrupts that story with a self-editorializing remark.

“ I think these stories are more interesting than the mathematics…

In 2020, you can learn any topic in mathematics on the internet with clarity. It’s all there. However, as the weeks of social distancing due to COVID-19 will turn into months, we will all long for human connection. There won’t be another John Conway again. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t pay homage to his legacy by telling stories about mathematics. Keith Devlin, while a pretty decent mathematician, would gladly take the title of being a better storyteller. His illumination of the birth of algebra is a must watch.

Below is a story I only came to know recently, in my research on storytelling.

Kluger is a writer for Time Magazine, and author of many books. He mentions that this story comes from the Agta people, a hunter-gatherer population in The Philippines. The story takes less than 30 seconds to read, and yet it packs a punch in communicating ideas about friendship, cooperation, empathy, and an aversion to inequality.

Can you imagine how much there is to be mined from 3000 years of mathematics? Persistence. Failure. Courage. Resilience. Adaptive. Determination. Hope. Curiosity. Unity. These characteristics are tattooed to history of mathematics. Nobody should be immune from hearing how.

As we navigate the murky waters of our pandemic, social distancing should be prioritizing our purpose for mathematics to be more profound, universal, and everlasting. I just recently finished a white paper for Amplify that reflects all this.

Rough Draft of White Paper

Storytelling, refracted through the massive prism of mathematics, is yielding brilliant colors of connection. There is even a virtual presentation by Philipp Legner, founder of Mathigon, during the 100 days of Professional Learning hosted by NCTM.

Our institutions of failed, gate-keeping mathematical ideas are eroding. Storytelling is the hero that we all deserve…

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Sunil Singh

Sunil Singh

Author, porous educator, audiophile.