A Mathematician’s Lament

I finally got around to reading this little book. I had previously enjoyed the PDF that has circulated the Internet and mathematics communities for some years. If you haven’t read that PDF file, you WILL like to do so. However, this post regards the entire book, 140 pages.

The book is mostly a piece of personal opinion regarding how mathematics learning happens, and how mathematics education, teaching and learning is really done these days. I am not reveiling too much if I say Lockheart is extremely critical of how schools present and teach mathematics to the children today. (The book was first published in 2009).

Picture from Amazon.com (Click to go to the books Amazon page)

He starts off the book comparing mathematics instruction with a nightmare, like if a musician goes to school, learns notes and partitures, and hardly ever gets to compose or play an instrument. He then goes on to show a simple example with a triangle inside a rectangle where a student is supposed to say something – anything! – about the areas of the figure inscribed in the other.  (Have a look at the GeoGebra files on http://mattegreier.blogspot.com/2009/10/areal-og-omkrets.html if you want to see this more clearly. Look for the triangle between two parallell lines and you will hopefully see what I mean). The point of the example is to make an argument about how big the triangle is in relation to the rectangle, and maybe bring forward a formula for computing the area of the triangle. (“Dissect it! Try many things! Try every way!”)

I love the way parts of the book are constructed as a dialogue between Simplicio and Salviati, it’s the first time I encountered this notion. We find the following explanation on Wikipedia, where Galileo Galieleis book, The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems is covered:

  • Salviati argues for the Copernican position and presents some of Galileo’s views directly, calling him the “Academician” in honor of Galileo’s membership in the Accademia dei Lincei. He is named after Galileo’s friend Filippo Salviati (1582–1614).
  • Sagredo is an intelligent layman who is initially neutral. He is named after Galileo’s friend Giovanni Francesco Sagredo (1571–1620).
  • Simplicio, a dedicated follower of Ptolemy and Aristotle, presents the traditional views and the arguments against the Copernican position. He is supposedly named after Simplicius of Cilicia, a sixth-century commentator on Aristotle, but it was suspected the name was a double entendre, as the Italian for “simple” (as in “simple minded”) is “semplice”.[7] Simplicio is modeled on two contemporary conservative philosophers, Ludovico delle Colombe (1565-1616?), Galileo’s fiercest detractor, and Cesare Cremonini (1550–1631), a Paduan colleague who had refused to look through the telescope.[8] Colombe was the leader of a group of Florentine opponents of Galileo’s, which some of the latter’s friends referred to as “the pigeon league”.[9]

(Sagredo does not enter Lockheart’s book, though.) The point is, Simplicio defends the traditional world view with a flat earth, whilst Salviati defends the heliocentric world view that Galilei proposes. The comparison to views about schooling is apparent and good fun. I like the part where Salviati replies that he doesn’t think the society benefits much from a lot of people walking around with vague memories of something about b square and the square root of minus 4ac or something like that. I remember myself how much – VERY much – time was spent trying to understand, use and remember the formula for solution to a square equation. I don’t think now that I understood it very well back then, and I can also tell from my students starting their teacher education that this formula only sticks for so long – unless you spent more time on building arguments and proofs for it, than you did inserting numbers into a,b and c. And when were you gonna use it anyway? Well, never, of course, even if the books meant to fool you into thinking the reasong for learning it was because you could use it to determine where a cannon ball hits the ground.

There’s one very important point that always comes up in discussions like this:

Simplicio: But we don’t have time for every student to invent mathematics for themselves! (…)

Of course, nobody has ever meant the children should INVENT ALL mathematics. It took mankind hundreds of years, for crying out loud. I know that a lot of researcher claims that ALL mathematics COULD be taught by starting with a phenomenon and then doing investigations. And they are probably right. But what is meant is that maybe not all mathematics in the present curriculum is necessary to carry about as mental baggage the rest of our lives. REMEMBERING a formula you never will use does seem completely irrelevant to me. Working with it to understand it, making up notation as needed, comparing things to established practices, discussing how to solve problemes, that is another thing.

Most of us don’t need the cosine rule, but if you venture into mathematics it will be necessary to understand it. (And you can, just take a look at the Proof without words series (Roger B. Nelsen)).  But why learn it if not to develop your thinking in the process of coming to understand it? For the hell of it, I can’t even think of a sound reason or a good context to use simple things as the Pythagorean theorem or the area of a triangle.  Making a corner on a football field, with a rope at a triangular shape, with three knots one side, four on the second and five on the third? When did you see anyone do that? If you really need 90 degrees, it is not accurate enough, if you don’t need it accurate, just make something that is almost accurate! But don’t forget to let your pupils play around with the IDEA of why this rope would make a triangle with one right angle. And in theory, the right angle will be perfect.

I remember in my first year of teaching, when we started on the triangle area formula. I argued that this was a smart thing to learn and understand, because you never know – one day you might need to calculate the area of a …errr… triangle garden in order to buy enough grass seeds!

Who was I fooling? Mostly myself I guess. And the poor kids, too.

Anyway, READ this book. You and your pupils will benefit from it. Maybe you won’t change the world, but perhaps you can change a little bit of yourself. And then another bit…and another. And perhaps, in the end, one of your pupils will have a different view on mathematics than kids in schools today have.

Others have blogged about this book too:

Squarecircles: http://www.squarecirclez.com/blog/a-mathematicians-lament-how-math-is-being-taught-all-wrong/2828

maa.org: http://www.maa.org/devlin/devlin_03_08.html

(written by Keith Devlin, who also wrote the foreword to the book).

2 Responses to A Mathematician’s Lament

  1. j2kun says:

    What a good paper!

    But I think his main argument (and I’ve experienced it myself) is that students will appreciate much more deeply a proof if they come up with it themselves. So trivial facts about imaginary rectangles become your own, beautiful creation, even if to an experienced mathematician it is crass. And if you spend hours toiling to find the solution, not only do you appreciate it more, you remember it for the rest of your life. I certainly know I had that experience with problems on tiling chessboards (see my proof gallery at jeremykun.wordpress.com).

    I’ve actually done some teaching trying to implement some of Lockheart’s ideas (although, it was before I read his paper). You can read about my experience on my blog on teaching graph theory to high school students (http://jeremykun.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/teaching-mathematics-graph-theory/)

    Keep up the good writing!

  2. oisteing says:

    Thank you so much for that, Jermey. I will definetly look into your blog (put it in my reader🙂. I work within teacher education here in Norway, so it’s been a while since I did graph theory!

    I agree with you, it’s a strong point, that discovery leads to concepts and results sticking with us. But I like to emphasis even more the skills children develop in the process – I like very much that Lockheart doesn’t really focus on the theorems, results, proofs and so on, but just the shear fun of trying to understand anything.

    We are now turning towards the Fosnot/Dolk series for our teacher education mathematics courses. You might know these American books? They are perhaps even TOO filled with content matter, but not that much in the mathematical sense. We also use a couple of danish books with a bit more didactical stuff like learning theories, analysis of tasks and dialogue etc. and also to venture into more mathematics like symmetries, congruence, probability, modelling and so on.

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