New formula for Maths Education?

May 28, 2010

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A couple of my cousins who are in class 10th are smart kids and are doing very well in their grades. Still, they find Maths a tedious subject – a difficult mountain to be climbed. One of them, when she was in class 8th, had devised the sum of an arithmetic progression in the same manner as the Prince of mathematics did in his childhood. To put things in perspective, its something that I learnt in class 11th. Every time I meet them, I’m stunned at how much smarter they are than me. At the same time, I could never understand why they find Maths so tedious. It should be very easy for kids that smart!

I recently discovered a good answer when I chanced up on Paul Lockhart’s “A Mathematician’s Lament” Its a moving argument which is 25 pages long and worth reading many times over. Paul argues that maths education is broken.

Everyone knows that something is wrong. The politicians say, “we need higher standards.”  The schools say, “we need more money and equipment.” Educators say one thing, and teachers say another. They are all wrong. The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, “math class is stupid and boring,” and they are right.

Paul says that Maths is really an art; an art at par with music or painting. It is to be enjoyed and taught much the same way as other arts rather than rote learning. He supports his arguments with quotations from mathematicians and anecdotes of his teaching experience. He contrasts this fun filled view of mathematics with ” a completely honest maths catalog”. He also engages in a dialog reminiscent of the Greek classics. All of these show how creativity and fun are the foundation stones of maths and that kids get it; only if they are allowed to.

In all, Paul makes a very passionate and convincing argument against the present methods of maths education. The current methods favor the formalism and the rigor of maths to an extent that the art is lost. All that the kids are left with is the drudgery and they don’t see any point to it. No wonder its a mountain to climb.

While I agree a 100% with Paul, its also difficult to see how schools alone can change things. There is a lot of material to cover and class sizes are only getting bigger. The personalized attention demanded by Paul’s methods cannot scale up to the demands of syllabus and class sizes. I’m not sure if schools and Boards such as CBSE can do anything more than switching to the grades instead of marks. This they have already done.

Paul’s methods have to be adopted by parents and others who have a one-on-one with the kids rather than one-on-many as teachers do. I would recommend every such person to read Paul’s lament. It will connect with many of childhood experiences and convince that kids deserve the fun rather than the drudgery.

I would also recommend patience to all such people because such methods demand a lot more. For example, I’ve gifted a maths problem book to my cousins. At first, the book was not opened because it was seen as “high level maths”. But once we solved one problem together and they realised that it takes only logic and no formula, we had big trouble at hand. First, they are hooked. Food, sleep, TV – everything is given a pass. Second, neither is willing to give the book to the other. So I get a lot of protests. Third and the most difficult, they think that I and other elders can solve the problems they can’t. Its a little difficult to say “I don’t know” to kids but I realized that it doesn’t matter in the end.

Image Courtesy:  i’m going to fail… by raquell

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