A Mathematician’s Lament


by Paul Lockhart

A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where
music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more
competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are
put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and
decisions are made— all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or
composer.
Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious
black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music.” It is imperative that students
become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it
would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a
thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone
composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until
college, and more often graduate school.
As for the primary and secondary schools, their mission is to train students to use this
language— to jiggle symbols around according to a fixed set of rules: “Music class is where we
take out our staff paper, our teacher puts some notes on the board, and we copy them or
transpose them into a different key. We have to make sure to get the clefs and key signatures
right, and our teacher is very picky about making sure we fill in our quarter-notes completely.
One time we had a chromatic scale problem and I did it right, but the teacher gave me no credit
because I had the stems pointing the wrong way.”
In their wisdom, educators soon realize that even very young children can be given this kind
of musical instruction. In fact it is considered quite shameful if one’s third-grader hasn’t
completely memorized his circle of fifths. “I’ll have to get my son a music tutor. He simply
won’t apply himself to his music homework. He says it’s boring. He just sits there staring out
the window, humming tunes to himself and making up silly songs.”
In the higher grades the pressure is really on. After all, the students must be prepared for the
standardized tests and college admissions exams. Students must take courses in Scales and
Modes, Meter, Harmony, and Counterpoint. “It’s a lot for them to learn, but later in college
when they finally get to hear all this stuff, they’ll really appreciate all the work they did in high
school.” Of course, not many students actually go on to concentrate in music, so only a few will
ever get to hear the sounds that the black dots represent. Nevertheless, it is important that every
member of society be able to recognize a modulation or a fugal passage, regardless of the fact
that they will never hear one. “To tell you the truth, most students just aren’t very good at music.
They are bored in class, their skills are terrible, and their homework is barely legible. Most of
them couldn’t care less about how important music is in today’s world; they just want to take the
minimum number of music courses and be done with it. I guess there are just music people and
non-music people. I had this one kid, though, man was she sensational! Her sheets were
impeccable— every note in the right place, perfect calligraphy, sharps, flats, just beautiful.
She’s going to make one hell of a musician someday.”
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Waking up in a cold sweat, the musician realizes, gratefully, that it was all just a crazy
dream. “Of course!” he reassures himself, “No society would ever reduce such a beautiful and
meaningful art form to something so mindless and trivial; no culture could be so cruel to its
children as to deprive them of such a natural, satisfying means of human expression. How
absurd!”
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a painter has just awakened from a similar
nightmare…
I was surprised to find myself in a regular school classroom— no easels, no tubes of paint.
“Oh we don’t actually apply paint until high school,” I was told by the students. “In seventh
grade we mostly study colors and applicators.” They showed me a worksheet. On one side were
swatches of color with blank spaces next to them. They were told to write in the names. “I like
painting,” one of them remarked, “they tell me what to do and I do it. It’s easy!”
After class I spoke with the teacher. “So your students don’t actually do any painting?” I
asked. “Well, next year they take Pre-Paint-by-Numbers. That prepares them for the main
Paint-by-Numbers sequence in high school. So they’ll get to use what they’ve learned here and
apply it to real-life painting situations— dipping the brush into paint, wiping it off, stuff like that.
Of course we track our students by ability. The really excellent painters— the ones who know
their colors and brushes backwards and forwards— they get to the actual painting a little sooner,
and some of them even take the Advanced Placement classes for college credit. But mostly
we’re just trying to give these kids a good foundation in what painting is all about, so when they
get out there in the real world and paint their kitchen they don’t make a total mess of it.”
“Um, these high school classes you mentioned…”
“You mean Paint-by-Numbers? We’re seeing much higher enrollments lately. I think it’s
mostly coming from parents wanting to make sure their kid gets into a good college. Nothing
looks better than Advanced Paint-by-Numbers on a high school transcript.”
“Why do colleges care if you can fill in numbered regions with the corresponding color?”
“Oh, well, you know, it shows clear-headed logical thinking. And of course if a student is
planning to major in one of the visual sciences, like fashion or interior decorating, then it’s really
a good idea to get your painting requirements out of the way in high school.”
“I see. And when do students get to paint freely, on a blank canvas?”
“You sound like one of my professors! They were always going on about expressing
yourself and your feelings and things like that—really way-out-there abstract stuff. I’ve got a
degree in Painting myself, but I’ve never really worked much with blank canvasses. I just use
the Paint-by-Numbers kits supplied by the school board.”
***
Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this kind of nightmare. In
fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural
curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being
done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soulcrushing
ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.
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
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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.
Mathematics and Culture
he first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. The difference between math and
the other arts, such as music and painting, is that our culture does not recognize it as such.
Everyone understands that poets, painters, and musicians create works of art, and are expressing
themselves in word, image, and sound. In fact, our society is rather generous when it comes to
creative expression; architects, chefs, and even television directors are considered to be working
artists. So why not mathematicians?
Part of the problem is that nobody has the faintest idea what it is that mathematicians do.
The common perception seems to be that mathematicians are somehow connected with
science— perhaps they help the scientists with their formulas, or feed big numbers into
computers for some reason or other. There is no question that if the world had to be divided into
the “poetic dreamers” and the “rational thinkers” most people would place mathematicians in the
latter category.
Nevertheless, the fact is that there is nothing as dreamy and poetic, nothing as radical,
subversive, and psychedelic, as mathematics. It is every bit as mind blowing as cosmology or
physics (mathematicians conceived of black holes long before astronomers actually found any),
and allows more freedom of expression than poetry, art, or music (which depend heavily on
properties of the physical universe). Mathematics is the purest of the arts, as well as the most
misunderstood.
So let me try to explain what mathematics is, and what mathematicians do. I can hardly do
better than to begin with G.H. Hardy’s excellent description:
A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker
of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than
theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.
So mathematicians sit around making patterns of ideas. What sort of patterns? What sort of
ideas? Ideas about the rhinoceros? No, those we leave to the biologists. Ideas about language
and culture? No, not usually. These things are all far too complicated for most mathematicians’
taste. If there is anything like a unifying aesthetic principle in mathematics, it is this: simple is
beautiful. Mathematicians enjoy thinking about the simplest possible things, and the simplest
possible things are imaginary.
For example, if I’m in the mood to think about shapes— and I often am— I might imagine a
triangle inside a rectangular box:
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I wonder how much of the box the triangle takes up? Two-thirds maybe? The important
thing to understand is that I’m not talking about this drawing of a triangle in a box. Nor am I
talking about some metal triangle forming part of a girder system for a bridge. There’s no
ulterior practical purpose here. I’m just playing. That’s what math is— wondering, playing,
amusing yourself with your imagination. For one thing, the question of how much of the box the
triangle takes up doesn’t even make any sense for real, physical objects. Even the most carefully
made physical triangle is still a hopelessly complicated collection of jiggling atoms; it changes
its size from one minute to the next. That is, unless you want to talk about some sort of
approximate measurements. Well, that’s where the aesthetic comes in. That’s just not simple,
and consequently it is an ugly question which depends on all sorts of real-world details. Let’s
leave that to the scientists. The mathematical question is about an imaginary triangle inside an
imaginary box. The edges are perfect because I want them to be— that is the sort of object I
prefer to think about. This is a major theme in mathematics: things are what you want them to
be. You have endless choices; there is no reality to get in your way.
On the other hand, once you have made your choices (for example I might choose to make
my triangle symmetrical, or not) then your new creations do what they do, whether you like it or
not. This is the amazing thing about making imaginary patterns: they talk back! The triangle
takes up a certain amount of its box, and I don’t have any control over what that amount is.
There is a number out there, maybe it’s two-thirds, maybe it isn’t, but I don’t get to say what it
is. I have to find out what it is.
So we get to play and imagine whatever we want and make patterns and ask questions about
them. But how do we answer these questions? It’s not at all like science. There’s no
experiment I can do with test tubes and equipment and whatnot that will tell me the truth about a
figment of my imagination. The only way to get at the truth about our imaginations is to use our
imaginations, and that is hard work.
In the case of the triangle in its box, I do see something simple and pretty:
If I chop the rectangle into two pieces like this, I can see that each piece is cut diagonally in
half by the sides of the triangle. So there is just as much space inside the triangle as outside.
That means that the triangle must take up exactly half the box!
This is what a piece of mathematics looks and feels like. That little narrative is an example
of the mathematician’s art: asking simple and elegant questions about our imaginary creations,
and crafting satisfying and beautiful explanations. There is really nothing else quite like this
realm of pure idea; it’s fascinating, it’s fun, and it’s free!
Now where did this idea of mine come from? How did I know to draw that line? How does
a painter know where to put his brush? Inspiration, experience, trial and error, dumb luck.
That’s the art of it, creating these beautiful little poems of thought, these sonnets of pure reason.
There is something so wonderfully transformational about this art form. The relationship
between the triangle and the rectangle was a mystery, and then that one little line made it
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obvious. I couldn’t see, and then all of a sudden I could. Somehow, I was able to create a
profound simple beauty out of nothing, and change myself in the process. Isn’t that what art is
all about?
This is why it is so heartbreaking to see what is being done to mathematics in school. This
rich and fascinating adventure of the imagination has been reduced to a sterile set of “facts” to be
memorized and procedures to be followed. In place of a simple and natural question about
shapes, and a creative and rewarding process of invention and discovery, students are treated to
this:
Triangle Area Formula:
A = 1/2 b h h
b
“The area of a triangle is equal to one-half its base times its height.” Students are asked to
memorize this formula and then “apply” it over and over in the “exercises.” Gone is the thrill,
the joy, even the pain and frustration of the creative act. There is not even a problem anymore.
The question has been asked and answered at the same time— there is nothing left for the
student to do.
Now let me be clear about what I’m objecting to. It’s not about formulas, or memorizing
interesting facts. That’s fine in context, and has its place just as learning a vocabulary does— it
helps you to create richer, more nuanced works of art. But it’s not the fact that triangles take up
half their box that matters. What matters is the beautiful idea of chopping it with the line, and
how that might inspire other beautiful ideas and lead to creative breakthroughs in other
problems— something a mere statement of fact can never give you.
By removing the creative process and leaving only the results of that process, you virtually
guarantee that no one will have any real engagement with the subject. It is like saying that
Michelangelo created a beautiful sculpture, without letting me see it. How am I supposed to be
inspired by that? (And of course it’s actually much worse than this— at least it’s understood that
there is an art of sculpture that I am being prevented from appreciating).
By concentrating on what, and leaving out why, mathematics is reduced to an empty shell.
The art is not in the “truth” but in the explanation, the argument. It is the argument itself which
gives the truth its context, and determines what is really being said and meant. Mathematics is
the art of explanation. If you deny students the opportunity to engage in this activity— to pose
their own problems, make their own conjectures and discoveries, to be wrong, to be creatively
frustrated, to have an inspiration, and to cobble together their own explanations and proofs— you
deny them mathematics itself. So no, I’m not complaining about the presence of facts and
formulas in our mathematics classes, I’m complaining about the lack of mathematics in our
mathematics classes.
f your art teacher were to tell you that painting is all about filling in numbered regions, you
would know that something was wrong. The culture informs you— there are museums and
galleries, as well as the art in your own home. Painting is well understood by society as a
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medium of human expression. Likewise, if your science teacher tried to convince you that
astronomy is about predicting a person’s future based on their date of birth, you would know she
was crazy— science has seeped into the culture to such an extent that almost everyone knows
about atoms and galaxies and laws of nature. But if your math teacher gives you the impression,
either expressly or by default, that mathematics is about formulas and definitions and
memorizing algorithms, who will set you straight?
The cultural problem is a self-perpetuating monster: students learn about math from their
teachers, and teachers learn about it from their teachers, so this lack of understanding and
appreciation for mathematics in our culture replicates itself indefinitely. Worse, the perpetuation
of this “pseudo-mathematics,” this emphasis on the accurate yet mindless manipulation of
symbols, creates its own culture and its own set of values. Those who have become adept at it
derive a great deal of self-esteem from their success. The last thing they want to hear is that
math is really about raw creativity and aesthetic sensitivity. Many a graduate student has come
to grief when they discover, after a decade of being told they were “good at math,” that in fact
they have no real mathematical talent and are just very good at following directions. Math is not
about following directions, it’s about making new directions.
And I haven’t even mentioned the lack of mathematical criticism in school. At no time are
students let in on the secret that mathematics, like any literature, is created by human beings for
their own amusement; that works of mathematics are subject to critical appraisal; that one can
have and develop mathematical taste. A piece of mathematics is like a poem, and we can ask if
it satisfies our aesthetic criteria: Is this argument sound? Does it make sense? Is it simple and
elegant? Does it get me closer to the heart of the matter? Of course there’s no criticism going on
in school— there’s no art being done to criticize!
Why don’t we want our children to learn to do mathematics? Is it that we don’t trust them,
that we think it’s too hard? We seem to feel that they are capable of making arguments and
coming to their own conclusions about Napoleon, why not about triangles? I think it’s simply
that we as a culture don’t know what mathematics is. The impression we are given is of
something very cold and highly technical, that no one could possibly understand— a selffulfilling
prophesy if there ever was one.
It would be bad enough if the culture were merely ignorant of mathematics, but what is far
worse is that people actually think they do know what math is about— and are apparently under
the gross misconception that mathematics is somehow useful to society! This is already a huge
difference between mathematics and the other arts. Mathematics is viewed by the culture as
some sort of tool for science and technology. Everyone knows that poetry and music are for pure
enjoyment and for uplifting and ennobling the human spirit (hence their virtual elimination from
the public school curriculum) but no, math is important.
SIMPLICIO: Are you really trying to claim that mathematics offers no useful or
practical applications to society?
SALVIATI: Of course not. I’m merely suggesting that just because something
happens to have practical consequences, doesn’t mean that’s what it is
about. Music can lead armies into battle, but that’s not why people
write symphonies. Michelangelo decorated a ceiling, but I’m sure he
had loftier things on his mind.
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SIMPLICIO: But don’t we need people to learn those useful consequences of math?
Don’t we need accountants and carpenters and such?
SALVIATI: How many people actually use any of this “practical math” they
supposedly learn in school? Do you think carpenters are out there
using trigonometry? How many adults remember how to divide
fractions, or solve a quadratic equation? Obviously the current
practical training program isn’t working, and for good reason: it is
excruciatingly boring, and nobody ever uses it anyway. So why do
people think it’s so important? I don’t see how it’s doing society any
good to have its members walking around with vague memories of
algebraic formulas and geometric diagrams, and clear memories of
hating them. It might do some good, though, to show them
something beautiful and give them an opportunity to enjoy being
creative, flexible, open-minded thinkers— the kind of thing a real
mathematical education might provide.
SIMPLICIO: But people need to be able to balance their checkbooks, don’t they?
SALVIATI: I’m sure most people use a calculator for everyday arithmetic. And
why not? It’s certainly easier and more reliable. But my point is not
just that the current system is so terribly bad, it’s that what it’s missing
is so wonderfully good! Mathematics should be taught as art for art’s
sake. These mundane “useful” aspects would follow naturally as a
trivial by-product. Beethoven could easily write an advertising jingle,
but his motivation for learning music was to create something
beautiful.
SIMPLICIO: But not everyone is cut out to be an artist. What about the kids who
aren’t “math people?” How would they fit into your scheme?
SALVIATI: If everyone were exposed to mathematics in its natural state, with all
the challenging fun and surprises that that entails, I think we would
see a dramatic change both in the attitude of students toward
mathematics, and in our conception of what it means to be “good at
math.” We are losing so many potentially gifted mathematicians—
creative, intelligent people who rightly reject what appears to be a
meaningless and sterile subject. They are simply too smart to waste
their time on such piffle.
SIMPLICIO: But don’t you think that if math class were made more like art class
that a lot of kids just wouldn’t learn anything?
SALVIATI: They’re not learning anything now! Better to not have math classes at
all than to do what is currently being done. At least some people
might have a chance to discover something beautiful on their own.
SIMPLICIO: So you would remove mathematics from the school curriculum?
SALVIATI: The mathematics has already been removed! The only question is
what to do with the vapid, hollow shell that remains. Of course I
would prefer to replace it with an active and joyful engagement with
mathematical ideas.
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SIMPLICIO: But how many math teachers know enough about their subject to
teach it that way?
SALVIATI: Very few. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg…
Mathematics in School
here is surely no more reliable way to kill enthusiasm and interest in a subject than to make
it a mandatory part of the school curriculum. Include it as a major component of
standardized testing and you virtually guarantee that the education establishment will suck the
life out of it. School boards do not understand what math is, neither do educators, textbook
authors, publishing companies, and sadly, neither do most of our math teachers. The scope of
the problem is so enormous, I hardly know where to begin.
Let’s start with the “math reform” debacle. For many years there has been a growing
awareness that something is rotten in the state of mathematics education. Studies have been
commissioned, conferences assembled, and countless committees of teachers, textbook
publishers, and educators (whatever they are) have been formed to “fix the problem.” Quite
apart from the self-serving interest paid to reform by the textbook industry (which profits from
any minute political fluctuation by offering up “new” editions of their unreadable monstrosities),
the entire reform movement has always missed the point. The mathematics curriculum doesn’t
need to be reformed, it needs to be scrapped.
All this fussing and primping about which “topics” should be taught in what order, or the use
of this notation instead of that notation, or which make and model of calculator to use, for god’s
sake— it’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic! Mathematics is the music of reason.
To do mathematics is to engage in an act of discovery and conjecture, intuition and inspiration;
to be in a state of confusion— not because it makes no sense to you, but because you gave it
sense and you still don’t understand what your creation is up to; to have a breakthrough idea; to
be frustrated as an artist; to be awed and overwhelmed by an almost painful beauty; to be alive,
damn it. Remove this from mathematics and you can have all the conferences you like; it won’t
matter. Operate all you want, doctors: your patient is already dead.
The saddest part of all this “reform” are the attempts to “make math interesting” and
“relevant to kids’ lives.” You don’t need to make math interesting— it’s already more
interesting than we can handle! And the glory of it is its complete irrelevance to our lives.
That’s why it’s so fun!
Attempts to present mathematics as relevant to daily life inevitably appear forced and
contrived: “You see kids, if you know algebra then you can figure out how old Maria is if we
know that she is two years older than twice her age seven years ago!” (As if anyone would ever
have access to that ridiculous kind of information, and not her age.) Algebra is not about daily
life, it’s about numbers and symmetry— and this is a valid pursuit in and of itself:
Suppose I am given the sum and difference of two numbers. How
can I figure out what the numbers are themselves?
Here is a simple and elegant question, and it requires no effort to be made appealing. The
ancient Babylonians enjoyed working on such problems, and so do our students. (And I hope
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you will enjoy thinking about it too!) We don’t need to bend over backwards to give
mathematics relevance. It has relevance in the same way that any art does: that of being a
meaningful human experience.
In any case, do you really think kids even want something that is relevant to their daily lives?
You think something practical like compound interest is going to get them excited? People
enjoy fantasy, and that is just what mathematics can provide— a relief from daily life, an
anodyne to the practical workaday world.
A similar problem occurs when teachers or textbooks succumb to “cutesyness.” This is
where, in an attempt to combat so-called “math anxiety” (one of the panoply of diseases which
are actually caused by school), math is made to seem “friendly.” To help your students
memorize formulas for the area and circumference of a circle, for example, you might invent this
whole story about “Mr. C,” who drives around “Mrs. A” and tells her how nice his “two pies
are” (C = 2πr) and how her “pies are square” (A = πr2) or some such nonsense. But what about
the real story? The one about mankind’s struggle with the problem of measuring curves; about
Eudoxus and Archimedes and the method of exhaustion; about the transcendence of pi? Which
is more interesting— measuring the rough dimensions of a circular piece of graph paper, using a
formula that someone handed you without explanation (and made you memorize and practice
over and over) or hearing the story of one of the most beautiful, fascinating problems, and one of
the most brilliant and powerful ideas in human history? We’re killing people’s interest in circles
for god’s sake!
Why aren’t we giving our students a chance to even hear about these things, let alone giving
them an opportunity to actually do some mathematics, and to come up with their own ideas,
opinions, and reactions? What other subject is routinely taught without any mention of its
history, philosophy, thematic development, aesthetic criteria, and current status? What other
subject shuns its primary sources— beautiful works of art by some of the most creative minds in
history— in favor of third-rate textbook bastardizations?
The main problem with school mathematics is that there are no problems. Oh, I know what
passes for problems in math classes, these insipid “exercises.” “Here is a type of problem. Here
is how to solve it. Yes it will be on the test. Do exercises 1-35 odd for homework.” What a sad
way to learn mathematics: to be a trained chimpanzee.
But a problem, a genuine honest-to-goodness natural human question— that’s another thing.
How long is the diagonal of a cube? Do prime numbers keep going on forever? Is infinity a
number? How many ways can I symmetrically tile a surface? The history of mathematics is the
history of mankind’s engagement with questions like these, not the mindless regurgitation of
formulas and algorithms (together with contrived exercises designed to make use of them).
A good problem is something you don’t know how to solve. That’s what makes it a good
puzzle, and a good opportunity. A good problem does not just sit there in isolation, but serves as
a springboard to other interesting questions. A triangle takes up half its box. What about a
pyramid inside its three-dimensional box? Can we handle this problem in a similar way?
I can understand the idea of training students to master certain techniques— I do that too.
But not as an end in itself. Technique in mathematics, as in any art, should be learned in context.
The great problems, their history, the creative process— that is the proper setting. Give your
students a good problem, let them struggle and get frustrated. See what they come up with.
Wait until they are dying for an idea, then give them some technique. But not too much.
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So put away your lesson plans and your overhead projectors, your full-color textbook
abominations, your CD-ROMs and the whole rest of the traveling circus freak show of
contemporary education, and simply do mathematics with your students! Art teachers don’t
waste their time with textbooks and rote training in specific techniques. They do what is natural
to their subject— they get the kids painting. They go around from easel to easel, making
suggestions and offering guidance:
“I was thinking about our triangle problem, and I noticed something. If the triangle is really
slanted then it doesn’t take up half it’s box! See, look:
“Excellent observation! Our chopping argument assumes that the tip of the triangle lies
directly over the base. Now we need a new idea.”
“Should I try chopping it a different way?”
“Absolutely. Try all sorts of ideas. Let me know what you come up with!”
o how do we teach our students to do mathematics? By choosing engaging and natural
problems suitable to their tastes, personalities, and level of experience. By giving them time
to make discoveries and formulate conjectures. By helping them to refine their arguments and
creating an atmosphere of healthy and vibrant mathematical criticism. By being flexible and
open to sudden changes in direction to which their curiosity may lead. In short, by having an
honest intellectual relationship with our students and our subject.
Of course what I’m suggesting is impossible for a number of reasons. Even putting aside the
fact that statewide curricula and standardized tests virtually eliminate teacher autonomy, I doubt
that most teachers even want to have such an intense relationship with their students. It requires
too much vulnerability and too much responsibility— in short, it’s too much work!
It is far easier to be a passive conduit of some publisher’s “materials” and to follow the
shampoo-bottle instruction “lecture, test, repeat” than to think deeply and thoughtfully about the
meaning of one’s subject and how best to convey that meaning directly and honestly to one’s
students. We are encouraged to forego the difficult task of making decisions based on our
individual wisdom and conscience, and to “get with the program.” It is simply the path of least
resistance:
TEXTBOOK PUBLISHERS : TEACHERS ::
A) pharmaceutical companies : doctors
B) record companies : disk jockeys
C) corporations : congressmen
D) all of the above
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The trouble is that math, like painting or poetry, is hard creative work. That makes it very
difficult to teach. Mathematics is a slow, contemplative process. It takes time to produce a work
of art, and it takes a skilled teacher to recognize one. Of course it’s easier to post a set of rules
than to guide aspiring young artists, and it’s easier to write a VCR manual than to write an
actual book with a point of view.
Mathematics is an art, and art should be taught by working artists, or if not, at least by people
who appreciate the art form and can recognize it when they see it. It is not necessary that you
learn music from a professional composer, but would you want yourself or your child to be
taught by someone who doesn’t even play an instrument, and has never listened to a piece of
music in their lives? Would you accept as an art teacher someone who has never picked up a
pencil or stepped foot in a museum? Why is it that we accept math teachers who have never
produced an original piece of mathematics, know nothing of the history and philosophy of the
subject, nothing about recent developments, nothing in fact beyond what they are expected to
present to their unfortunate students? What kind of a teacher is that? How can someone teach
something that they themselves don’t do? I can’t dance, and consequently I would never
presume to think that I could teach a dance class (I could try, but it wouldn’t be pretty). The
difference is I know I can’t dance. I don’t have anyone telling me I’m good at dancing just
because I know a bunch of dance words.
Now I’m not saying that math teachers need to be professional mathematicians— far from it.
But shouldn’t they at least understand what mathematics is, be good at it, and enjoy doing it?
If teaching is reduced to mere data transmission, if there is no sharing of excitement and
wonder, if teachers themselves are passive recipients of information and not creators of new
ideas, what hope is there for their students? If adding fractions is to the teacher an arbitrary set
of rules, and not the outcome of a creative process and the result of aesthetic choices and desires,
then of course it will feel that way to the poor students.
Teaching is not about information. It’s about having an honest intellectual relationship with
your students. It requires no method, no tools, and no training. Just the ability to be real. And if
you can’t be real, then you have no right to inflict yourself upon innocent children.
In particular, you can’t teach teaching. Schools of education are a complete crock. Oh, you
can take classes in early childhood development and whatnot, and you can be trained to use a
blackboard “effectively” and to prepare an organized “lesson plan” (which, by the way, insures
that your lesson will be planned, and therefore false), but you will never be a real teacher if you
are unwilling to be a real person. Teaching means openness and honesty, an ability to share
excitement, and a love of learning. Without these, all the education degrees in the world won’t
help you, and with them they are completely unnecessary.
It’s perfectly simple. Students are not aliens. They respond to beauty and pattern, and are
naturally curious like anyone else. Just talk to them! And more importantly, listen to them!
SIMPLICIO: All right, I understand that there is an art to mathematics and that we
are not doing a good job of exposing people to it. But isn’t this a
rather esoteric, highbrow sort of thing to expect from our school
system? We’re not trying to create philosophers here, we just want
people to have a reasonable command of basic arithmetic so they can
function in society.
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SALVIATI: But that’s not true! School mathematics concerns itself with many
things that have nothing to do with the ability to get along in society—
algebra and trigonometry, for instance. These studies are utterly
irrelevant to daily life. I’m simply suggesting that if we are going to
include such things as part of most students’ basic education, that we
do it in an organic and natural way. Also, as I said before, just because
a subject happens to have some mundane practical use does not mean
that we have to make that use the focus of our teaching and learning.
It may be true that you have to be able to read in order to fill out
forms at the DMV, but that’s not why we teach children to read. We
teach them to read for the higher purpose of allowing them access to
beautiful and meaningful ideas. Not only would it be cruel to teach
reading in such a way— to force third graders to fill out purchase
orders and tax forms— it wouldn’t work! We learn things because
they interest us now, not because they might be useful later. But this
is exactly what we are asking children to do with math.
SIMPLICIO: But don’t we need third graders to be able to do arithmetic?
SALVIATI: Why? You want to train them to calculate 427 plus 389? It’s just not a
question that very many eight-year-olds are asking. For that matter,
most adults don’t fully understand decimal place-value arithmetic, and
you expect third graders to have a clear conception? Or do you not
care if they understand it? It is simply too early for that kind of
technical training. Of course it can be done, but I think it ultimately
does more harm than good. Much better to wait until their own
natural curiosity about numbers kicks in.
SIMPLICIO: Then what should we do with young children in math class?
SALVIATI: Play games! Teach them Chess and Go, Hex and Backgammon,
Sprouts and Nim, whatever. Make up a game. Do puzzles. Expose
them to situations where deductive reasoning is necessary. Don’t
worry about notation and technique, help them to become active and
creative mathematical thinkers.
SIMPLICIO: It seems like we’d be taking an awful risk. What if we de-emphasize
arithmetic so much that our students end up not being able to add and
subtract?
SALVIATI: I think the far greater risk is that of creating schools devoid of creative
expression of any kind, where the function of the students is to
memorize dates, formulas, and vocabulary lists, and then regurgitate
them on standardized tests—“Preparing tomorrow’s workforce today!”
SIMPLICIO: But surely there is some body of mathematical facts of which an
educated person should be cognizant.
SALVIATI: Yes, the most important of which is that mathematics is an art form
done by human beings for pleasure! Alright, yes, it would be nice if
people knew a few basic things about numbers and shapes, for
instance. But this will never come from rote memorization, drills,
lectures, and exercises. You learn things by doing them and you
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remember what matters to you. We have millions of adults wandering
around with “negative b plus or minus the square root of b squared
minus 4ac all over 2a” in their heads, and absolutely no idea whatsoever
what it means. And the reason is that they were never given the
chance to discover or invent such things for themselves. They never
had an engaging problem to think about, to be frustrated by, and to
create in them the desire for technique or method. They were never
told the history of mankind’s relationship with numbers— no ancient
Babylonian problem tablets, no Rhind Papyrus, no Liber Abaci, no Ars
Magna. More importantly, no chance for them to even get curious
about a question; it was answered before they could ask it.
SIMPLICIO: But we don’t have time for every student to invent mathematics for
themselves! It took centuries for people to discover the Pythagorean
Theorem. How can you expect the average child to do it?
SALVIATI: I don’t. Let’s be clear about this. I’m complaining about the complete
absence of art and invention, history and philosophy, context and
perspective from the mathematics curriculum. That doesn’t mean that
notation, technique, and the development of a knowledge base have no
place. Of course they do. We should have both. If I object to a
pendulum being too far to one side, it doesn’t mean I want it to be all
the way on the other side. But the fact is, people learn better when
the product comes out of the process. A real appreciation for poetry
does not come from memorizing a bunch of poems, it comes from
writing your own.
SIMPLICIO: Yes, but before you can write your own poems you need to learn the
alphabet. The process has to begin somewhere. You have to walk
before you can run.
SALVIATI: No, you have to have something you want to run toward. Children can
write poems and stories as they learn to read and write. A piece of
writing by a six-year-old is a wonderful thing, and the spelling and
punctuation errors don’t make it less so. Even very young children can
invent songs, and they haven’t a clue what key it is in or what type of
meter they are using.
SIMPLICIO: But isn’t math different? Isn’t math a language of its own, with all
sorts of symbols that have to be learned before you can use it?
SALVIATI: Not at all. Mathematics is not a language, it’s an adventure. Do
musicians “speak another language” simply because they choose to
abbreviate their ideas with little black dots? If so, it’s no obstacle to
the toddler and her song. Yes, a certain amount of mathematical
shorthand has evolved over the centuries, but it is in no way essential.
Most mathematics is done with a friend over a cup of coffee, with a
diagram scribbled on a napkin. Mathematics is and always has been
about ideas, and a valuable idea transcends the symbols with which you
choose to represent it. As Gauss once remarked, “What we need are
notions, not notations.”
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SIMPLICIO: But isn’t one of the purposes of mathematics education to help
students think in a more precise and logical way, and to develop their
“quantitative reasoning skills?” Don’t all of these definitions and
formulas sharpen the minds of our students?
SALVIATI: No they don’t. If anything, the current system has the opposite effect
of dulling the mind. Mental acuity of any kind comes from solving
problems yourself, not from being told how to solve them.
SIMPLICIO: Fair enough. But what about those students who are interested in
pursuing a career in science or engineering? Don’t they need the
training that the traditional curriculum provides? Isn’t that why we
teach mathematics in school?
SALVIATI: How many students taking literature classes will one day be writers?
That is not why we teach literature, nor why students take it. We
teach to enlighten everyone, not to train only the future professionals.
In any case, the most valuable skill for a scientist or engineer is being
able to think creatively and independently. The last thing anyone
needs is to be trained.
The Mathematics Curriculum
he truly painful thing about the way mathematics is taught in school is not what is missing—
the fact that there is no actual mathematics being done in our mathematics classes— but
what is there in its place: the confused heap of destructive disinformation known as “the
mathematics curriculum.” It is time now to take a closer look at exactly what our students are up
against— what they are being exposed to in the name of mathematics, and how they are being
harmed in the process.
The most striking thing about this so-called mathematics curriculum is its rigidity. This is
especially true in the later grades. From school to school, city to city, and state to state, the same
exact things are being said and done in the same exact way and in the same exact order. Far
from being disturbed and upset by this Orwellian state of affairs, most people have simply
accepted this “standard model” math curriculum as being synonymous with math itself.
This is intimately connected to what I call the “ladder myth”— the idea that mathematics can
be arranged as a sequence of “subjects” each being in some way more advanced, or “higher”
than the previous. The effect is to make school mathematics into a race— some students are
“ahead” of others, and parents worry that their child is “falling behind.” And where exactly does
this race lead? What is waiting at the finish line? It’s a sad race to nowhere. In the end you’ve
been cheated out of a mathematical education, and you don’t even know it.
Real mathematics doesn’t come in a can— there is no such thing as an Algebra II idea.
Problems lead you to where they take you. Art is not a race. The ladder myth is a false image of
the subject, and a teacher’s own path through the standard curriculum reinforces this myth and
prevents him or her from seeing mathematics as an organic whole. As a result, we have a math
curriculum with no historical perspective or thematic coherence, a fragmented collection of
assorted topics and techniques, united only by the ease in which they can be reduced to step-bystep
procedures.
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In place of discovery and exploration, we have rules and regulations. We never hear a student
saying, “I wanted to see if it could make any sense to raise a number to a negative power, and I
found that you get a really neat pattern if you choose it to mean the reciprocal.” Instead we have
teachers and textbooks presenting the “negative exponent rule” as a fait d’accompli with no
mention of the aesthetics behind this choice, or even that it is a choice.
In place of meaningful problems, which might lead to a synthesis of diverse ideas, to
uncharted territories of discussion and debate, and to a feeling of thematic unity and harmony in
mathematics, we have instead joyless and redundant exercises, specific to the technique under
discussion, and so disconnected from each other and from mathematics as a whole that neither
the students nor their teacher have the foggiest idea how or why such a thing might have come
up in the first place.
In place of a natural problem context in which students can make decisions about what they
want their words to mean, and what notions they wish to codify, they are instead subjected to an
endless sequence of unmotivated and a priori “definitions.” The curriculum is obsessed with
jargon and nomenclature, seemingly for no other purpose than to provide teachers with
something to test the students on. No mathematician in the world would bother making these
senseless distinctions: 2 1/2 is a “mixed number,” while 5/2 is an “improper fraction.” They’re
equal for crying out loud. They are the same exact numbers, and have the same exact properties.
Who uses such words outside of fourth grade?
Of course it is far easier to test someone’s knowledge of a pointless definition than to inspire
them to create something beautiful and to find their own meaning. Even if we agree that a basic
common vocabulary for mathematics is valuable, this isn’t it. How sad that fifth-graders are
taught to say “quadrilateral” instead of “four-sided shape,” but are never given a reason to use
words like “conjecture,” and “counterexample.” High school students must learn to use the
secant function, ‘sec x,’ as an abbreviation for the reciprocal of the cosine function, ‘1 / cos x,’
(a definition with as much intellectual weight as the decision to use ‘&’ in place of “and.” ) That
this particular shorthand, a holdover from fifteenth century nautical tables, is still with us
(whereas others, such as the “versine” have died out) is mere historical accident, and is of utterly
no value in an era when rapid and precise shipboard computation is no longer an issue. Thus we
clutter our math classes with pointless nomenclature for its own sake.
In practice, the curriculum is not even so much a sequence of topics, or ideas, as it is a
sequence of notations. Apparently mathematics consists of a secret list of mystical symbols and
rules for their manipulation. Young children are given ‘+’ and ‘÷.’ Only later can they be
entrusted with ‘√¯,’ and then ‘x’ and ‘y’ and the alchemy of parentheses. Finally, they are
indoctrinated in the use of ‘sin,’ ‘log,’ ‘f(x),’ and if they are deemed worthy, ‘d’ and ‘∫.’ All
without having had a single meaningful mathematical experience.
This program is so firmly fixed in place that teachers and textbook authors can reliably
predict, years in advance, exactly what students will be doing, down to the very page of
exercises. It is not at all uncommon to find second-year algebra students being asked to calculate
[ f(x + h) – f(x) ] / h for various functions f, so that they will have “seen” this when they take
calculus a few years later. Naturally no motivation is given (nor expected) for why such a
seemingly random combination of operations would be of interest, although I’m sure there are
many teachers who try to explain what such a thing might mean, and think they are doing their
students a favor, when in fact to them it is just one more boring math problem to be gotten over
with. “What do they want me to do? Oh, just plug it in? OK.”
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Another example is the training of students to express information in an unnecessarily
complicated form, merely because at some distant future period it will have meaning. Does any
middle school algebra teacher have the slightest clue why he is asking his students to rephrase
“the number x lies between three and seven” as |x - 5| < 2 ? Do these hopelessly inept textbook
authors really believe they are helping students by preparing them for a possible day, years
hence, when they might be operating within the context of a higher-dimensional geometry or an
abstract metric space? I doubt it. I expect they are simply copying each other decade after
decade, maybe changing the fonts or the highlight colors, and beaming with pride when an
school system adopts their book, and becomes their unwitting accomplice.
Mathematics is about problems, and problems must be made the focus of a students
mathematical life. Painful and creatively frustrating as it may be, students and their teachers
should at all times be engaged in the process— having ideas, not having ideas, discovering
patterns, making conjectures, constructing examples and counterexamples, devising arguments,
and critiquing each other’s work. Specific techniques and methods will arise naturally out of this
process, as they did historically: not isolated from, but organically connected to, and as an
outgrowth of, their problem-background.
English teachers know that spelling and pronunciation are best learned in a context of reading
and writing. History teachers know that names and dates are uninteresting when removed from
the unfolding backstory of events. Why does mathematics education remain stuck in the
nineteenth century? Compare your own experience of learning algebra with Bertrand Russell’s
recollection:
“I was made to learn by heart: ‘The square of the sum of two
numbers is equal to the sum of their squares increased by twice
their product.’ I had not the vaguest idea what this meant and
when I could not remember the words, my tutor threw the book at
my head, which did not stimulate my intellect in any way.”
Are things really any different today?
SIMPLICIO: I don’t think that’s very fair. Surely teaching methods have improved
since then.
SALVIATI: You mean training methods. Teaching is a messy human relationship;
it does not require a method. Or rather I should say, if you need a
method you’re probably not a very good teacher. If you don’t have
enough of a feeling for your subject to be able to talk about it in your
own voice, in a natural and spontaneous way, how well could you
understand it? And speaking of being stuck in the nineteenth century,
isn’t it shocking how the curriculum itself is stuck in the seventeenth?
To think of all the amazing discoveries and profound revolutions in
mathematical thought that have occurred in the last three centuries!
There is no more mention of these than if they had never happened.
SIMPLICIO: But aren’t you asking an awful lot from our math teachers? You
expect them to provide individual attention to dozens of students,
guiding them on their own paths toward discovery and enlightenment,
and to be up on recent mathematical history as well?
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SALVIATI: Do you expect your art teacher to be able to give you individualized,
knowledgeable advice about your painting? Do you expect her to
know anything about the last three hundred years of art history? But
seriously, I don’t expect anything of the kind, I only wish it were so.
SIMPLICIO: So you blame the math teachers?
SALVIATI: No, I blame the culture that produces them. The poor devils are
trying their best, and are only doing what they’ve been trained to do.
I’m sure most of them love their students and hate what they are being
forced to put them through. They know in their hearts that it is
meaningless and degrading. They can sense that they have been made
cogs in a great soul-crushing machine, but they lack the perspective
needed to understand it, or to fight against it. They only know they
have to get the students “ready for next year.”
SIMPLICIO: Do you really think that most students are capable of operating on
such a high level as to create their own mathematics?
SALVIATI: If we honestly believe that creative reasoning is too “high” for our
students, and that they can’t handle it, why do we allow them to write
history papers or essays about Shakespeare? The problem is not that
the students can’t handle it, it’s that none of the teachers can. They’ve
never proved anything themselves, so how could they possibly advise a
student? In any case, there would obviously be a range of student
interest and ability, as there is in any subject, but at least students
would like or dislike mathematics for what it really is, and not for this
perverse mockery of it.
SIMPLICIO: But surely we want all of our students to learn a basic set of facts and
skills. That’s what a curriculum is for, and that’s why it is so
uniform— there are certain timeless, cold hard facts we need our
students to know: one plus one is two, and the angles of a triangle add
up to 180 degrees. These are not opinions, or mushy artistic feelings.
SALVIATI: On the contrary. Mathematical structures, useful or not, are invented
and developed within a problem context, and derive their meaning
from that context. Sometimes we want one plus one to equal zero (as
in so-called ‘mod 2’ arithmetic) and on the surface of a sphere the
angles of a triangle add up to more than 180 degrees. There are no
“facts” per se; everything is relative and relational. It is the story that
matters, not just the ending.
SIMPLICIO: I’m getting tired of all your mystical mumbo-jumbo! Basic arithmetic,
all right? Do you or do you not agree that students should learn it?
SALVIATI: That depends on what you mean by “it.” If you mean having an
appreciation for the problems of counting and arranging, the
advantages of grouping and naming, the distinction between a
representation and the thing itself, and some idea of the historical
development of number systems, then yes, I do think our students
should be exposed to such things. If you mean the rote memorization
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of arithmetic facts without any underlying conceptual framework, then
no. If you mean exploring the not at all obvious fact that five groups
of seven is the same as seven groups of five, then yes. If you mean
making a rule that 5 x 7 = 7 x 5, then no. Doing mathematics should
always mean discovering patterns and crafting beautiful and
meaningful explanations.
SIMPLICIO: What about geometry? Don’t students prove things there? Isn’t High
School Geometry a perfect example of what you want math classes to
be?
High School Geometry: Instrument of the Devil
here is nothing quite so vexing to the author of a scathing indictment as having the primary
target of his venom offered up in his support. And never was a wolf in sheep’s clothing as
insidious, nor a false friend as treacherous, as High School Geometry. It is precisely because it
is school’s attempt to introduce students to the art of argument that makes it so very dangerous.
Posing as the arena in which students will finally get to engage in true mathematical
reasoning, this virus attacks mathematics at its heart, destroying the very essence of creative
rational argument, poisoning the students’ enjoyment of this fascinating and beautiful subject,
and permanently disabling them from thinking about math in a natural and intuitive way.
The mechanism behind this is subtle and devious. The student-victim is first stunned and
paralyzed by an onslaught of pointless definitions, propositions, and notations, and is then slowly
and painstakingly weaned away from any natural curiosity or intuition about shapes and their
patterns by a systematic indoctrination into the stilted language and artificial format of so-called
“formal geometric proof.”
All metaphor aside, geometry class is by far the most mentally and emotionally destructive
component of the entire K-12 mathematics curriculum. Other math courses may hide the
beautiful bird, or put it in a cage, but in geometry class it is openly and cruelly tortured.
(Apparently I am incapable of putting all metaphor aside.)
What is happening is the systematic undermining of the student’s intuition. A proof, that is,
a mathematical argument, is a work of fiction, a poem. Its goal is to satisfy. A beautiful proof
should explain, and it should explain clearly, deeply, and elegantly. A well-written, well-crafted
argument should feel like a splash of cool water, and be a beacon of light— it should refresh the
spirit and illuminate the mind. And it should be charming.
There is nothing charming about what passes for proof in geometry class. Students are
presented a rigid and dogmatic format in which their so-called “proofs” are to be conducted— a
format as unnecessary and inappropriate as insisting that children who wish to plant a garden
refer to their flowers by genus and species.
Let’s look at some specific instances of this insanity. We’ll begin with the example of two
crossed lines:
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Now the first thing that usually happens is the unnecessary muddying of the waters with
excessive notation. Apparently, one cannot simply speak of two crossed lines; one must give
elaborate names to them. And not simple names like ‘line 1’ and ‘line 2,’ or even ‘a’ and ‘b.’
We must (according to High School Geometry) select random and irrelevant points on these
lines, and then refer to the lines using the special “line notation.”
You see, now we get to call them AB and CD. And God forbid you should omit the little bars
on top— ‘AB’ refers to the length of the line AB (at least I think that’s how it works). Never
mind how pointlessly complicated it is, this is the way one must learn to do it. Now comes the
actual statement, usually referred to by some absurd name like
PROPOSITION 2.1.1.
Let AB and CD intersect at P. Then ∠APC ≅ ∠BPD.
In other words, the angles on both sides are the same. Well, duh! The configuration of two
crossed lines is symmetrical for crissake. And as if this wasn’t bad enough, this patently obvious
statement about lines and angles must then be “proved.”
Proof:
Statement Reason
1. m∠APC + m∠APD = 180 1. Angle Addition Postulate
m∠BPD + m∠APD = 180
2. m∠APC + m∠APD = m∠BPD + m∠APD 2. Substitution Property
3. m∠APD = m∠APD 3. Reflexive Property of Equality
4. m∠APC = m∠BPD 4. Subtraction Property of Equality
5. ∠APC ≅ ∠BPD 5. Angle Measurement Postulate
Instead of a witty and enjoyable argument written by an actual human being, and conducted
in one of the world’s many natural languages, we get this sullen, soulless, bureaucratic formletter
of a proof. And what a mountain being made of a molehill! Do we really want to suggest
that a straightforward observation like this requires such an extensive preamble? Be honest: did
you actually even read it? Of course not. Who would want to?
The effect of such a production being made over something so simple is to make people
doubt their own intuition. Calling into question the obvious, by insisting that it be “rigorously
C B
A D
C B
A D
P
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proved” (as if the above even constitutes a legitimate formal proof) is to say to a student, “Your
feelings and ideas are suspect. You need to think and speak our way.”
Now there is a place for formal proof in mathematics, no question. But that place is not a
student’s first introduction to mathematical argument. At least let people get familiar with some
mathematical objects, and learn what to expect from them, before you start formalizing
everything. Rigorous formal proof only becomes important when there is a crisis— when you
discover that your imaginary objects behave in a counterintuitive way; when there is a paradox
of some kind. But such excessive preventative hygiene is completely unnecessary here—
nobody’s gotten sick yet! Of course if a logical crisis should arise at some point, then obviously
it should be investigated, and the argument made more clear, but that process can be carried out
intuitively and informally as well. In fact it is the soul of mathematics to carry out such a
dialogue with one’s own proof.
So not only are most kids utterly confused by this pedantry— nothing is more mystifying
than a proof of the obvious— but even those few whose intuition remains intact must then
retranslate their excellent, beautiful ideas back into this absurd hieroglyphic framework in order
for their teacher to call it “correct.” The teacher then flatters himself that he is somehow
sharpening his students’ minds.
As a more serious example, let’s take the case of a triangle inside a semicircle:
Now the beautiful truth about this pattern is that no matter where on the circle you place the
tip of the triangle, it always forms a nice right angle. (I have no objection to a term like “right
angle” if it is relevant to the problem and makes it easier to discuss. It’s not terminology itself
that I object to, it’s pointless unnecessary terminology. In any case, I would be happy to use
“corner” or even “pigpen” if a student preferred.)
Here is a case where our intuition is somewhat in doubt. It’s not at all clear that this should
be true; it even seems unlikely— shouldn’t the angle change if I move the tip? What we have
here is a fantastic math problem! Is it true? If so, why is it true? What a great project! What a
terrific opportunity to exercise one’s ingenuity and imagination! Of course no such opportunity
is given to the students, whose curiosity and interest is immediately deflated by:
21
THEOREM 9.5. Let ΔABC be inscribed in a semicircle with diameter
AC.
Then ∠ABC is a right angle.
Proof:
Statement Reason
1. Draw radius OB. Then OB = OC = OA 1. Given
2. m∠OBC = m∠BCA
m∠OBA = m∠BAC
2. Isosceles Triangle Theorem
3. m∠ABC = m∠OBA + m∠OBC 3. Angle Sum Postulate
4. m∠ABC + m∠BCA + m∠BAC = 180 4. The sum of the angles of a triangle is 180
5. m∠ABC + m∠OBC + m∠OBA = 180 5. Substitution (line 2)
6. 2 m∠ABC = 180 6. Substitution (line 3)
7. m∠ABC = 90 7. Division Property of Equality
8. ∠ABC is a right angle 8. Definition of Right Angle
Could anything be more unattractive and inelegant? Could any argument be more
obfuscatory and unreadable? This isn’t mathematics! A proof should be an epiphany from the
Gods, not a coded message from the Pentagon. This is what comes from a misplaced sense of
logical rigor: ugliness. The spirit of the argument has been buried under a heap of confusing
formalism.
No mathematician works this way. No mathematician has ever worked this way. This is a
complete and utter misunderstanding of the mathematical enterprise. Mathematics is not about
erecting barriers between ourselves and our intuition, and making simple things complicated.
Mathematics is about removing obstacles to our intuition, and keeping simple things simple.
Compare this unappetizing mess of a proof with the following argument devised by one of
my seventh-graders:
“Take the triangle and rotate it around so it makes a foursided
box inside the circle. Since the triangle got turned
completely around, the sides of the box must be parallel,
so it makes a parallelogram. But it can’t be a slanted box
because both of its diagonals are diameters of the circle, so
they’re equal, which means it must be an actual rectangle.
That’s why the corner is always a right angle.”
Isn’t that just delightful? And the point isn’t whether this argument is any better than the
other one as an idea, the point is that the idea comes across. (As a matter of fact, the idea of the
first proof is quite pretty, albeit seen as through a glass, darkly.)
B
A O C
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More importantly, the idea was the student’s own. The class had a nice problem to work on,
conjectures were made, proofs were attempted, and this is what one student came up with. Of
course it took several days, and was the end result of a long sequence of failures.
To be fair, I did paraphrase the proof considerably. The original was quite a bit more
convoluted, and contained a lot of unnecessary verbiage (as well as spelling and grammatical
errors). But I think I got the feeling of it across. And these defects were all to the good; they
gave me something to do as a teacher. I was able to point out several stylistic and logical
problems, and the student was then able to improve the argument. For instance, I wasn’t
completely happy with the bit about both diagonals being diameters— I didn’t think that was
entirely obvious— but that only meant there was more to think about and more understanding to
be gained from the situation. And in fact the student was able to fill in this gap quite nicely:
“Since the triangle got rotated halfway around the circle, the tip
must end up exactly opposite from where it started. That’s why
the diagonal of the box is a diameter.”
So a great project and a beautiful piece of mathematics. I’m not sure who was more proud,
the student or myself. This is exactly the kind of experience I want my students to have.
The problem with the standard geometry curriculum is that the private, personal experience
of being a struggling artist has virtually been eliminated. The art of proof has been replaced by a
rigid step-by step pattern of uninspired formal deductions. The textbook presents a set of
definitions, theorems, and proofs, the teacher copies them onto the blackboard, and the students
copy them into their notebooks. They are then asked to mimic them in the exercises. Those that
catch on to the pattern quickly are the “good” students.
The result is that the student becomes a passive participant in the creative act. Students are
making statements to fit a preexisting proof-pattern, not because they mean them. They are
being trained to ape arguments, not to intend them. So not only do they have no idea what their
teacher is saying, they have no idea what they themselves are saying.
Even the traditional way in which definitions are presented is a lie. In an effort to create an
illusion of “clarity” before embarking on the typical cascade of propositions and theorems, a set
of definitions are provided so that statements and their proofs can be made as succinct as
possible. On the surface this seems fairly innocuous; why not make some abbreviations so that
things can be said more economically? The problem is that definitions matter. They come from
aesthetic decisions about what distinctions you as an artist consider important. And they are
problem-generated. To make a definition is to highlight and call attention to a feature or
structural property. Historically this comes out of working on a problem, not as a prelude to it.
The point is you don’t start with definitions, you start with problems. Nobody ever had an
idea of a number being “irrational” until Pythagoras attempted to measure the diagonal of a
square and discovered that it could not be represented as a fraction. Definitions make sense
when a point is reached in your argument which makes the distinction necessary. To make
definitions without motivation is more likely to cause confusion.
This is yet another example of the way that students are shielded and excluded from the
mathematical process. Students need to be able to make their own definitions as the need
arises— to frame the debate themselves. I don’t want students saying, “the definition, the
theorem, the proof,” I want them saying, “my definition, my theorem, my proof.”
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All of these complaints aside, the real problem with this kind of presentation is that it is
boring. Efficiency and economy simply do not make good pedagogy. I have a hard time
believing that Euclid would approve of this; I know Archimedes wouldn’t.
SIMPLICIO: Now hold on a minute. I don’t know about you, but I actually enjoyed
my high school geometry class. I liked the structure, and I enjoyed
working within the rigid proof format.
SALVIATI: I’m sure you did. You probably even got to work on some nice
problems occasionally. Lot’s of people enjoy geometry class (although
lots more hate it). But this is not a point in favor of the current
regime. Rather, it is powerful testimony to the allure of mathematics
itself. It’s hard to completely ruin something so beautiful; even this
faint shadow of mathematics can still be engaging and satisfying.
Many people enjoy paint-by-numbers as well; it is a relaxing and
colorful manual activity. That doesn’t make it the real thing, though.
SIMPLICIO: But I’m telling you, I liked it.
SALVIATI: And if you had had a more natural mathematical experience you would
have liked it even more.
SIMPLICIO: So we’re supposed to just set off on some free-form mathematical
excursion, and the students will learn whatever they happen to learn?
SALVIATI: Precisely. Problems will lead to other problems, technique will be
developed as it becomes necessary, and new topics will arise naturally.
And if some issue never happens to come up in thirteen years of
schooling, how interesting or important could it be?
SIMPLICIO: You’ve gone completely mad.
SALVIATI: Perhaps I have. But even working within the conventional framework
a good teacher can guide the discussion and the flow of problems so as
to allow the students to discover and invent mathematics for
themselves. The real problem is that the bureaucracy does not allow
an individual teacher to do that. With a set curriculum to follow, a
teacher cannot lead. There should be no standards, and no curriculum.
Just individuals doing what they think best for their students.
SIMPLICIO: But then how can schools guarantee that their students will all have
the same basic knowledge? How will we accurately measure their
relative worth?
SALVIATI: They can’t, and we won’t. Just like in real life. Ultimately you have to
face the fact that people are all different, and that’s just fine. In any
case, there’s no urgency. So a person graduates from high school not
knowing the half-angle formulas (as if they do now!) So what? At least
that person would come away with some sort of an idea of what the
subject is really about, and would get to see something beautiful.
In Conclusion…
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o put the finishing touches on my critique of the standard curriculum, and as a service to the
community, I now present the first ever completely honest course catalog for K-12
mathematics:
The Standard School Mathematics Curriculum
LOWER SCHOOL MATH. The indoctrination begins. Students learn that mathematics is not
something you do, but something that is done to you. Emphasis is placed on sitting still, filling
out worksheets, and following directions. Children are expected to master a complex set of
algorithms for manipulating Hindi symbols, unrelated to any real desire or curiosity on their part,
and regarded only a few centuries ago as too difficult for the average adult. Multiplication tables
are stressed, as are parents, teachers, and the kids themselves.
MIDDLE SCHOOL MATH. Students are taught to view mathematics as a set of procedures,
akin to religious rites, which are eternal and set in stone. The holy tablets, or “Math Books,” are
handed out, and the students learn to address the church elders as “they” (as in “What do they
want here? Do they want me to divide?”) Contrived and artificial “word problems” will be
introduced in order to make the mindless drudgery of arithmetic seem enjoyable by comparison.
Students will be tested on a wide array of unnecessary technical terms, such as ‘whole number’
and ‘proper fraction,’ without the slightest rationale for making such distinctions. Excellent
preparation for Algebra I.
ALGEBRA I. So as not to waste valuable time thinking about numbers and their patterns, this
course instead focuses on symbols and rules for their manipulation. The smooth narrative thread
that leads from ancient Mesopotamian tablet problems to the high art of the Renaissance
algebraists is discarded in favor of a disturbingly fractured, post-modern retelling with no
characters, plot, or theme. The insistence that all numbers and expressions be put into various
standard forms will provide additional confusion as to the meaning of identity and equality.
Students must also memorize the quadratic formula for some reason.
GEOMETRY. Isolated from the rest of the curriculum, this course will raise the hopes of
students who wish to engage in meaningful mathematical activity, and then dash them. Clumsy
and distracting notation will be introduced, and no pains will be spared to make the simple seem
complicated. This goal of this course is to eradicate any last remaining vestiges of natural
mathematical intuition, in preparation for Algebra II.
ALGEBRA II. The subject of this course is the unmotivated and inappropriate use of coordinate
geometry. Conic sections are introduced in a coordinate framework so as to avoid the aesthetic
simplicity of cones and their sections. Students will learn to rewrite quadratic forms in a variety
of standard formats for no reason whatsoever. Exponential and logarithmic functions are also
introduced in Algebra II, despite not being algebraic objects, simply because they have to be
stuck in somewhere, apparently. The name of the course is chosen to reinforce the ladder
mythology. Why Geometry occurs in between Algebra I and its sequel remains a mystery.
T
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TRIGONOMETRY. Two weeks of content are stretched to semester length by masturbatory
definitional runarounds. Truly interesting and beautiful phenomena, such as the way the sides of
a triangle depend on its angles, will be given the same emphasis as irrelevant abbreviations and
obsolete notational conventions, in order to prevent students from forming any clear idea as to
what the subject is about. Students will learn such mnemonic devices as “SohCahToa” and “All
Students Take Calculus” in lieu of developing a natural intuitive feeling for orientation and
symmetry. The measurement of triangles will be discussed without mention of the
transcendental nature of the trigonometric functions, or the consequent linguistic and
philosophical problems inherent in making such measurements. Calculator required, so as to
further blur these issues.
PRE-CALCULUS. A senseless bouillabaisse of disconnected topics. Mostly a half-baked
attempt to introduce late nineteenth-century analytic methods into settings where they are neither
necessary nor helpful. Technical definitions of ‘limits’ and ‘continuity’ are presented in order to
obscure the intuitively clear notion of smooth change. As the name suggests, this course
prepares the student for Calculus, where the final phase in the systematic obfuscation of any
natural ideas related to shape and motion will be completed.
CALCULUS. This course will explore the mathematics of motion, and the best ways to bury it
under a mountain of unnecessary formalism. Despite being an introduction to both the
differential and integral calculus, the simple and profound ideas of Newton and Leibniz will be
discarded in favor of the more sophisticated function-based approach developed as a response to
various analytic crises which do not really apply in this setting, and which will of course not be
mentioned. To be taken again in college, verbatim.
***
And there you have it. A complete prescription for permanently disabling young minds— a
proven cure for curiosity. What have they done to mathematics!
There is such breathtaking depth and heartbreaking beauty in this ancient art form. How
ironic that people dismiss mathematics as the antithesis of creativity. They are missing out on an
art form older than any book, more profound than any poem, and more abstract than any abstract.
And it is school that has done this! What a sad endless cycle of innocent teachers inflicting
damage upon innocent students. We could all be having so much more fun.
SIMPLICIO: Alright, I’m thoroughly depressed. What now?
SALVIATI: Well, I think I have an idea about a pyramid inside a cube…
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