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Math! It seems to me that no subject (except maybe English) can frustrate so many learners. My friend Vanessa, who had a hand in creating the ix-quadrat math exhibit at the TUM, has taught me that children start out with mathematical gifts but lose them in school. So: what goes wrong?
I remember being very young when I noticed one January 1st that the year had changed. It dawned on me that the story of Jesus had happened in a time line and that years, like days and hours and minutes, were units that were all the same length. Wow!! Suddenly an abstract date became wonderfully real.
In school, I was enchanted by geometry, which I connected with origami, a hobby of mine. Finding out about pi was great, because I learned that numbers didn’t need to be integers (whole numbers) or fractions (one half etc.) to make perfect sense. Endless pi hinted at endless harmony just a step beyond my comprehension. Math, it seemed, was beautiful!Functions, too, had a satisfying symmetry — at first. But as they became more complex, I tried to find things in the real world connected to the charts we were drawing. Unfortunately, our teacher made no connection between the world outside and our math book. He gave up, presenting us with empty formulas and hating students for being stupid. And how we hated him back! In my most rebellious period, I handed in an empty test in protest. I caught up later only because a new teacher put the meaning back in by patiently explaining applications in the real world.
Taking the leap of faith into abstract mathematical thinking is not easy for us non-geniuses. In this “Year of Math”, the German government is doing a great job of creating interest in real-life applications for math, such as using the optimal skateboard jump curve to explain calculus. Other children learn by using easy interactive software, like MIT’s Scratch.
Still others need to identify with the mathematical systems as such. Ethno-mathematician Ron Eglash has found fractals to be the defining structural element in African society, from hair braids to fence building and the layout of villages. He uses “culturally situated” mathematics to create enthusiasm among African American students. Marvellous!
Wouldn’t it be nice to have more fun with math? Maybe some idealist will come up with a math blog for adults. Hey, Vanessa, do you have time on your hands? There must be others like me who would love to forget the crap we waded through in school and start over. Hello, out there, Genius: Your audience is waiting!
- See Ron Eglash’s wonderful talk at TED (also below). He’s created free “culturally situated” web design applets to experiment with.
- Origami fans, get your folding fingers ready for a beautiful video tutorial by the Peabody Essex Museum. (Thanks, Louise, for the link!)
- Your math brain is in a coma, like mine? Revive it here with all the math you need.
- Teaching math to English Language Learners in multilingual schools is a new challenge. See this article by Suzanne Irujo.
- Funny: Tom Lehrer’s That’s Mathematics:
Learning the ropes – Vokabeltabelle
have a hand in doing something – an etwas beteiligt sein
gift – Begabung
go wrong – schiefgehen
to dawn on someone – jemandem aufgehen
unit – Einheit
enchanted – verzaubert, hingerissen
integer – ganze Zahl
fraction – Bruch
to hint at something – etwas andeuten, einen Hinweis geben
a step beyond – ein Schritt jenseits
comprehension – Verständnis, Verstehen
chart – Tabelle
to draw – zeichnen
formula – Formel
rebellious – widerspenstig
to hand in – einreichen, abgeben
in protest – als Protest
to catch up – wieder aufholen
meaning – Bedeutung
patiently – geduldig
applications – Anwendungen
take a leap of faith – einen Glaubenssprung wagen
government – Regierung
such as – wie zum Beispiel
calculus – Differential- und Integralrechnung
find something to be – als etwas erkennen
fractals – Fraktale
hair braids – Zöpfe
fence building – Zäune bauen
layout – Anordung
village – Dorf
culturally situated – kulturell verankert, verortet
to create enthusiasm – Begeisterung schaffen
have time on one’s hands – Zeit übrig haben
crap – Mist
to wade through – durchwaten
start over – neu anfangen
audience – Publikum
to fold – falten
to revive – wiederbeleben
in honor of – zu Ehren von
Pictures: ix-quadrat, TUM
Congratulations, Vanessa, on your PhD! 🙂