The Creativity Curriculum.

Posted by Sergio on Feb 7, 2016

Lockhart believes that Mathematics is an art that is given a disservice in the education system because it’s often presented as “An arbitrary set of rules”. Indeed, Lockhart outlines the differences in teaching between artistic subjects and Mathematics. Firstly that arts teachers don’t exert their students with rigorous exercise but allow them to learn through exploration and secondly that Mathematics education completely strips Mathematics of its history, philosophy and its purpose.

It’s curious because this learning through exploration sounds similar to what Dan Mayer suggests teaching should resemble. Except that Lockhart believes that there is no ulterior practical purpose to Mathematics education as most of what we learn becomes irrelevant. This view is closely shared by Ken Robinson who believes that Mathematics education is outdated and only stifles curiosity and creativity.

Everything that Lockhart says relates to the style of teaching that I know I required during my education. Whenever Mathematics was presented to me as a set of exercises I switched off, unable to understand the simplest forms of mathematics such as Y=MX+C. My sister would spend hours tutoring me over a textbook trying to make these ideas sink in, but to no avail. However when I retook Maths I had a new A level teacher who loved to introduce topics with their historical context. I learnt about Gauss discovering arithmetic series when he was in elementary school, Newton and Leibniz racing to discover calculus. During my own research I found Evariste Galois who died at 21 and spent most of his teens developing number theory. David Hilbert and his infinite Hotel and also his list of the most important unsolved Maths problems of the 19th century. I became keener to learn the Mathematics, picturing how it was students such as myself who had developed these tools. It was relatable and comforting and I began to learn quickly.

Admittedly this style of mixing History with Mathematics didn’t work for all the students in my class. However I believe Ken Robinson has an explanation for why this is when he says “We are making kids lose the capacity for creativity” and “They are frightened of being wrong”. In this particular class all but myself and one other student were described as “Weak students” and constantly scolded for not having done their work or for getting questions wrong. I had the rare insight of being able to tutor three of them at their request and they constantly complained about how the teacher made them feel. Furthermore many times they would ask me questions I simply couldn’t answer and despite me having learnt the structure of how to solve problems, I really didn’t understand the depth of the mathematics.

Lockhart’s comment that most Maths teachers don’t fully understand the Maths they teach made me reflect retrospectively on my own teachers. Looking back many of my classes were “shampoo bottle instructions – Lecture, test, and repeat” as he calls it. Nevertheless I don’t think it’s fair to blame teachers for this because Maths is not necessarily allowed to be an exploratory subject by the board of education, so it’s a big risk to introduce something new. I believe, as Robinson does, that the strict and overflowing curriculum stifles room for teacher’s creativity.


1 Comment

  1. pepsmccrea
    8 February 2016

    Lots of important connections being made here. Strong analysis of role of historical context. Why does this work for some people?

    Great to see you reflect on the issues in your own experience and question whether you really understand things.

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