Organic Mathematics

Posted by SIMON on Feb 21, 2015



To first see whether Mathematics can be considered a creative subject or not we must first look at what are widely considered the creative subjects, Art, Dance, Music, English literature, film and to me there is one thing that is the backbone of these subjects: patterns.

Artists know which colours complement each other, dancers’ structure routines in a specific pattern making sure their actions are one with the music, musicians understand which of the infinite combination of notes sound pleasing, stories in author’s books are designed to captivate an audience through a series of plot devices, world class athletes study their opponents in an attempt to see patterns to gain an advantage and even in nature recognising patterns can save an animal’s life, packs of animals understand when a rival pack has greater numbers, domesticated animals understand how many times to push a button to gain a treat and even plants grow in specific patterns. Patterns are everywhere and it is our ability to manipulate patterns in a creative way that makes us special, every single person has this basic ability to recognise patterns, it is embedded in every living creature and we take advantage of this fundamental ability in “creative” subjects (which I suspect is why we consider them the more enjoyable subjects) so why are we not taking advantage of this when we teach Maths?

Have you ever seen a David Attenborough documentary in which a female bird of paradise desperately tries to remember a strict set of long complicated rules in order to determine if their male counterpart would make a suitable mate? No, they use their instincts and natural pattern reading ability to be courted. As I progress through this course I am able to observe future mathematicians learn the subject from scratch and others trying to break it back down to its fundamentals and it is becoming abundantly clear to me that Maths can be broken down to a collection of patterns, patterns that much like in the “creative” subjects, can be manipulated into some beautiful ideas and concepts and embracing this idea of using our natural ability to recognise patterns seems like a much needed step.

Letting students discover patterns and come up with their own ideas based on these patters is what they are born to do, telling them all the rules and then giving them a set of problems to practice said rules (for which they already know the solution, they just have to remember it) is not only restricting their natural pattern recognising ability that is used in every aspect of life, it is extinguishing any hope that the student will develop a love for the subject.

Knowing this will sure make me enjoy the ride!

I have recently been shown a couple of videos that’s purpose is to try and convince students that Maths is useful because of real life applications, then go on to show clips of roller-coaster and the tricky sums behind it or feature a hairdresser explaining that she uses angles to cut hair at 45 degrees, I find this absolutely ludicrous and a futile attempt to convince students of Mathematics usefulness, which in its current form is not all that useful for the majority of people. In Lockhart’s ideal world we could be making videos with the same aim that explains Maths helps us become better artists, architects, musicians, footballers, directors, hairdressers, entrepreneurs, [insert any profession here], husbands, wives, parents, people. We could do this because learning maths would sharpen our innate ability to understand and discover patterns that are embedded in every aspect of life. But I think even more importantly is that we would not even need to create such a video, because students may actually be allowed to enjoy Maths.

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