Math is Uplifting

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 12.52.14 PM

Last week as teachers returned to school for faculty in-service, the school where I teach (Regents School of Austin) offered several talks/presentations that were broadly labeled as “Classical Christian Development.” There was a talk on western civilization, a talk on the importance of story, a talk on the centrality of theology, and a talk on math. I was asked to give the talk on math and this post is acting as a summary/recap. You can click the image above to download the slides I used in the presentation.

The title of my talk was “Math is _________ .” In introducing the talk I let that title just linger there for a while, asking the audience to consider what words or phrases come to their mind for filling in the blank. As the speaker I also enjoy soaking in the facial reactions of each member of the audience when it is announced that this next 45 minute talk will be about math. I contend that 100% of people (and as a statistics teacher, it means something when I say 100%) have a memorable, visceral experience from a math class. There are no neutral expressions on the faces of audience members. The sad thing from my perspective as a math teacher is that the majority of those memorable experiences are negative. My hope in giving this talk was to encourage people to consider some new words for the blank that they maybe had not thought of before.

I start by offering some familiar suggestions for the blank (familiar at least to our Classical Christian context where we teach). Here is the mission statement of Regents School of Austin:

The mission of Regents School is to provide a classical and Christian education, founded upon and informed by a Christian worldview, that equips students to know, love and practice that which is true, good and beautiful, and challenges them to strive for excellence as they live purposefully and intelligently in the service of God and man.

The bold emphasis is mine to point out a few words that might fit in the blank.

Math is TRUE.  This isn’t something I need to sell people on. I mean, 2 + 2 = 4 every time, amirite? To take it a step further though, I encouraged people to consider some ideas I put forward in another post: God, Math, and Order.

“To all of us who hold the Christian belief that God is truth, anything that is true is a fact about God, and mathematics is a branch of theology.”

~ Hilda Phoebe Hudson

When discussing mathematics from a Christian perspective, one statement that always seem to bubble to the top of the conversation is that mathematics reveals God as a God of order. This is true. This is also way underselling the connection between God and math.

Does God use mathematics because He is a God of order or does math have order because God uses it? I would argue that order is not a characteristic God displays but a quality that He defines by His nature and math gives us a glimpse into that nature. “Our God is a God of order” – By this claim we shouldn’t merely mean that God acts in an orderly fashion. We should mean God defines what an orderly fashion is. Order is not a quality God decided to portray, rather order flows from His nature.

If this can become our perspective, then when we speak of mathematics portraying God as a God of order, that description will carry so much more meaning. Instead of just correlating our mathematical results with some quality that God displays, we can realize those results are better understood as a manifestation of God’s nature. In a way we are communing with Him in our work as mathematicians, gaining deeper insight into His character.

Math is BEAUTIFUL. This is another category that I don’t have to do much convincing on. So many people have put together so many amazing presentations on the beauty of mathematics that any rational person could be convinced of math being beautiful after a quick Google search. Here is one my favorite videos in this regard and a few quotes.

“The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s, must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colors or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.”

~ G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology

“The mathematical sciences particularly exhibit order, symmetry, and limitation; these are the greatest forms of the beautiful.”

~ Aristotle

Math is GOOD

Untitled

Here is where the sell gets a little harder. As I mentioned above, a lot of people associate very negative things with math class. When asked to complete the phrase “Math is _________” they may think of words like “stressful,” “confusing,” “too abstract,” “not applicable to me,” or “the exact opposite of all that is good and holy.” Here is where I focused the remainder of my talk in an attempt to get anyone who fell into this boat to start seeing math in a different way.

Whenever I am presenting at conferences I like to do the following exercise: I ask people what the number one question asked in math class is, and without fail I always hear back “when am I ever going to use this?” The reality is that this is not a question, it is a statement. It is a statement of confusion and frustration. In other words the answer to “when am I ever going to use this?” has already formed in the student’s mind as “I am never going to use this” and then they withdraw from the mental activity at hand.

I would argue that what a student is really asking is “why should I value this?” It is not a question of finding application but of finding meaning. Maybe another rephrasing would be “why is this worth learning?” As Christian educators this deep longing should be familiar. If we believe Augustine in the Confessions that “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee,” then that doesn’t stop when students walk into math class. The most fundamental thing that is happening in math class is that students are seeking value (something we as teachers need to address in our curriculum) and are seeking to be valued (something we as teachers need to address in our pedagogy). In other words, the foundational issue of math class is an affective one as opposed to a cognitive one.

Affective issues are just present for students but for teachers as well. Another exercise I do at conference presentations: I ask people to close their eyes an imagine their best/ideal teaching moments (the O Captain My Captain moments). I then ask volunteers to share a word or phrase that describes that moment. Not once in all my years of doing this has a teacher mentioned anything about content. The language that is used is always affective – “engaging,” “curious,” “joyful.” Don’t get me wrong – I know the content was still there in the lesson and probably operating at a high level to produce those affective moments. The point of the exercise is simply to illuminate how central issues of affect are to the math classroom.

This is not just an anecdotal observation, but it is also affirmed in educational research:

When teachers talk about their mathematics classes, they seem just as likely to mention their students’ enthusiasm or hostility toward mathematics as to report their cognitive achievements.

Similarly, inquiries of students are just as likely to produce affective as cognitive responses, comments about liking (or hating) mathematics are as common as reports of instructional activities.

Affective issues play a central role in mathematics learning and instruction.

~ Douglas McLeod in Handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning (1992)

It is also affirmed in national policy documents on math education (even though those documents never really develop how to go about obtaining these stated results – hence the motivation for my dissertation).

“Being mathematically literate includes having an appreciation of the value and beauty of mathematics as well as being able and inclined to appraise and use quantitative information.”

~ NCTM Standards for Teaching Mathematics

“Mathematical proficiency has five strands: conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, strategic competence, adaptive reasoning, and productive disposition. Productive disposition is the habitual inclination to see mathematics as sensible, useful, and worthwhile.”

~ Adding it Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics (National Research Council)

OK – so students and teachers both would admit that affect plays an important role in math education, this is supported by research, and it is affirmed in national policy documents and recommendations. With all of this motivation how are we (math teachers) doing?

As it stands our current methods of teaching mathematics are producing untold numbers of students who see mathematics more about natural ability rather than effort, who are willing to accept poor performance in mathematics, who often openly proclaim their ignorance of math without embarrassment, and who treat their lack of accomplishment in mathematics as permanent state over which they have little control.

~ McLeod (1992)

This quote may seem a little dated as far as research goes but I think it perfectly sums up the situation. No matter how dated the quote is, I know this is still true today because… well, I’m a math teacher. Plus I introduce myself to people in social situations. Other math teachers will quickly confirm this: whenever you meet someone and they ask “what do you do?” and you respond “I teach math” the next response will typically be something like “I was never any good at math.”

Math teachers are probably second only to priests in terms of the number of confessions we take from people.

Also, through these conversations it gets revealed that what these people really didn’t like about math were more factors of the math classroom schooling environment than the discipline of math itself. To me though, these actions are very foreign to the actual discipline of mathematics. For instance, people might say “I hated memorizing all of those formulas.” No mathematician would describe math as memorizing formulas. In essence what these people are doing is gossiping about math.

It as if they are saying “My friend’s cousin’s roommate’s teacher said that math is a jerk. He saw math behind the bleachers making out with history behind science’s back. No thank you – I want no part of math.”

To which I’d have to say “First, math is everywhere so math is probably making out with all of the subjects. Second, have you actually met math? Maybe you should talk to math face to face to sort this out.”

I think people have this false perception of what mathematics is because their experience of the math classroom was through forced, awkward, artificial “relevance” of math topics. For example:

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 2.25.10 PM

The previous day another teacher had shared a story of how he actually jumped a cow in his car and miraculously survived – so I turned it into a word problem. Like most word problems it successfully takes and interesting event/story and kills it dead by now making it a chore for students to slog through. The artificial relevance of this problem makes it seem as if Mr. Williams was in the car doing this:

alan-blackjack-o

(NOTE: prior to this example coming up, I had planned to share an example I saw in a textbook of calculating parabolic motion on Steph Curry’s jump shot – this is clearly mathematical but we have to be careful not to oversell relevance as if Steph Curry makes his shots because he knows the math).

So how do we avoid this artificial relevance? How do we teach math differently at Regents? Because we teach at a Christian school, does that mean 2 + 2 = Jesus now? Here I had to share some thoughts from another previous post: 2+2=Jesus? Ultimately this type of question fails to see math as anything more than calculations. Math has calculations, but it is more than that. The question also sees Christianity as simply a new way of thinking (Jesus is now the answer to everything). As a pastor of mine would always say:

Christianity is always more than thinking, but never less.

~ Neil Tomba, Senior Pastor, Northwest Bible Church, Dallas, TX

A better understanding of how Regents approaches math differently can be summed up in the following quote:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I pulled this from the first page of A Mathematician’s Lament, by Paul Lockhart, and it hits on the deeply affective aspect of what we do as teachers. I also proceed to read the opening imagery of Lockhart’s initial paper to communicate to everyone in the audience how we as math teachers feel about what often is described as math teaching.

So how do we go about cultivating mathematical affections? Well, I’ve written a lot about that here, but to quickly summarize:

Education is not primarily a heady project concerned with providing information; rather, education is most fundamentally a matter of formation, a task of shaping and creating a certain kind of people…. What makes them a distinctive kind of people is what they love or desire or value….. An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices…. There is no neutral, nonformative education.

~ James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (2009)

And also:

Mathematics educators who set out to modify existing, strongly-held belief structures of their students are not likely to be successful addressing only the content of their students’ beliefs…it will be important to provide experiences that are sufficiently rich, varied, and powerful in their emotional content.

~ G.A. Goldin in Beliefs: A hidden variable in mathematics education? (2002)

In other words, it is the practices of the math classrooms that shape mathematical affections. So I challenged the teachers in the audience to consider:

  • Students want to know your story…
  • What are the touchstone moments you can recall from a math classroom?
  • What would you say are the “thick” practices/routines/liturgies of a math classroom?
  • How has your experience of those practices shaped your perspective of mathematics?
  • In light of our own experience of mathematics how do we work to shape our students’ experience of mathematics? How do we cultivate their mathematical affections?

To help answer these questions, I closed by offering three new words to fill in the blank of “Math is ____________ .”

Math is INVITING

Here I got to share about my role as an ambassador for the Global Math Project. First, an introductory video:

I challenged people to tell me how this math problem was different than the cow-jumping math problem above. A couple of different responses: this one makes you curious – you want to solve it. This problem has no words only images. This problem makes you ask questions rather than asking them for you.

Often our invitation into mathematics is already excluding some students. The words or terminology we use to introduce the problem may already shut people down. I’m not saying we shouldn’t use proper terminology, I am just asking to consider if it is always necessary. For instance, this example is teaching binary numbers but that term is never used. We don’t start by telling students “Ok, let’s learn the properties of binary numbers.” We have this interesting video instead. I would rather students understand the underlying concepts and connections (which this video very clearly portrays) than parrot terminology without understanding.

Math is ANALOGY.

I have written elsewhere about Flatland: A project of many dimensions. I love Flatland, and occasionally you’ll even see it’s title referenced as a parable. I love taking students through the though process of what would it look like for a sphere to enter into the 2D world of Flatland. In Flatland the inhabitants would only see the sphere as a circular cross section, completely unaware of the concept of a 3D sphere outside their literal plane of existence.

In this way the concept of dimension in mathematics offers a great analogy for issues of faith. How can Jesus be both fully God and fully man? Well, maybe it is kinda like the sphere still being a sphere but also a circle. I also love the illustration put forward in the chapter on dimension in Mathematics Through the Eyes of Faith about what if a hand entered Flatland. As your fingers went into Flatland the inhabitants would see cross sectional circles, none of which are connected. But if they could zoom out to 3D space then they could see fingers all connected to one hand. Maybe this can help us understand how the church is composed of many separate members but is still referred to as one body.

Untitled

Finally there is Salvador Dali’s Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus). Just as a 3D cube can unfold into a 2D net that appears like a cross, a 4D hypercube can unfold into the 3D net seen above. Dali is speaking of the mystery of the crucifixion – of something that originated in a higher plane of existence unfolding itself into our world. These moments of insight for our students are made richer by the use of math as an analogy for faith.

Math is SERVING.

I have written a lot here about service-learning in mathematics. I won’t expand here, I’ll just summarize why I think teacher’s should consider service-learning:

  • Affective learning objective is primary
  • Cognitive learning objective is still present and operating at a high level
  • Opportunity to communicate the value of affective learning outcomes through assessment
    • “It is through our assessment that we communicate most clearly to students which activities and learning outcomes we value.”
    • David J. Clarke, NCTM Assessment Standards for School Mathematics
  • Reflection is key
  • Moves toward inculcating a servant’s heart

Here is a quote from a student who would adamantly describe themselves as “not a math person” at the end of the year after going through a service learning project. When asked if they think their attitude towards math has become more positive:

“Yeah, definitely, much more positive. It was hard, don’t get me wrong and I’m not saying the ‘I’m no good at math thing’ didn’t change, but I do think … I am sure that I can learn it, because I am sure I can learn it. It just will take longer and when you don’t feel so completely discouraged about it … When you do feel that you do have shot to understand it and learn it, for me at least it really raises my attitude towards it. It doesn’t feel like it’s this hopeless thing that I just have to suffer through. It is kind-of just a hill you climb, right?”

I like this quote because it is honest. The point of cultivating mathematical affection is not to have every student now love math and have it be their favorite subject. The hope is that students who once saw math as this hopeless thing to be endured now see value in working hard at it. They start to see why they should value math.

Finally, returning to the Global Math Project as the inspiration for my talk in the first place:

Math is UPLIFTING.

I love that the motivation behind the Global Math Project is to change people’s experience of mathematics. I would love to see the students who would say that math is “confusing” and “stressful” now start to use words like “uplifting” to describe mathematics.

Returning to the Regents mission statement:

The mission of Regents School is to provide a classical and Christian education, founded upon and informed by a Christian worldview, that equips students to know, love and practice that which is true, good and beautiful, and challenges them to strive for excellence (inviting) as they live purposefully and intelligently in the service of God and man.

Notice the new points of emphasis. Sometimes focusing on math as true, good, and beautiful can still be an abstract exercise. Let’s start looking for math after the comma. Let’s look at the experience students are having of mathematics. Let’s care about the practices and liturgies of the math classroom so we can impact the mathematical affections of students.

If you are interested in starting the conversation with math (and leaving gossiping about math behind) I ended but sharing two great talks given by Francis Su, former president of the Mathematical Association of America:

The Lesson of Grace in Teaching

Math for Human Flourishing

Advertisements

The Role of Mathematical Aesthetics in Christian Education

by R. Scott Eberle

Scott Eberle has a Ph.D. in Math Education and currently serves as a missionary in Niger, working to spread the Gospel message through Christian education. Scott works to build up Christian leaders and educators in Niger who approach mathematics through a distinctly Christian perspective. You can follow Scott and his family at nigerministry.tumblr.com.

Josh Wilkerson invited me to contribute something on the aesthetics of mathematics from a Christian perspective. I’d especially like to discuss how such a seemingly abstract idea has application in Christian education.

Detail of the Mandelbrot Set in the plane of complex numbers
Detail of the Mandelbrot Set in the plane of complex numbers

Mathematical Aesthetics

Mathematics has been considered an aesthetic subject from antiquity. The Greeks considered mathematics to be the highest form of aesthetics because of its perfection. The Pythagoreans and Platonists considered mathematical concepts to have a real, mystical existence in some perfect realm.

Throughout history, mathematicians and philosophers have continued to claim that mathematics is beautiful for a variety of reasons. For example, whereas the Greeks saw beauty in the ontology of mathematics, the French mathematician Henri Poincaré saw beauty in its epistemology. Because of the way we teach mathematics, many students believe there is always one hard-and-fast method for cranking out the answer to any mathematical problem. But as mathematicians know, true mathematical problems require a great deal of creative intuition to solve. Poincaré pointed out that mathematicians rely on aesthetic-based intuition to distinguish fruitful paths of mathematical inquiry from dead ends. He wrote, “It is this special aesthetic sensibility which plays the rôle of the delicate sieve” (1908/2000, p. 92).

Today, nearly all mathematicians continue to recognize the aesthetic nature of mathematics (Burton, 1999). The British mathematician John Horton Conway went so far as to claim, “It’s a thing that non-mathematicians don’t realize. Mathematics is actually an aesthetic subject almost entirely” (Spencer, 2001, p. 165). The reason the general population doesn’t realize that mathematics is an aesthetic subject is probably due to the mechanical way in which we frequently teach mathematics. School exercises are often artificial, simplistic, and have only one right answer. There is nothing creative or aesthetic to see in the average math lesson.

Conway’s claim that mathematics is almost entirely aesthetic is a bold one. But actually, modern mathematics can be seen to be an aesthetic subject from its foundations to its methods to its end results. This is especially true since mathematics’ divorce from physics in the 19th century as it became a purely abstract study, inspired by, but independent of, the natural world.

  • Foundations: Mathematics rests on a foundation of axioms and definitions. But these are chosen, not deduced. Mathematicians choose definitions and axiomatic systems based on criteria of logic, relative completeness, consistency, mutual independence, simplicity, connectedness, and elegance. These criteria are partly aesthetic in nature.
  • Methods: As Poincaré pointed out, mathematicians rely on a certain aesthetic sense to guide their explorations. Paths that seem particularly elegant often prove to be the most successful. In 1931 Gödel destroyed earlier hopes of purely mechanical methods of generating mathematical theorems and proofs, making the fundamental role of intuition even more necessary. Modern researchers are beginning to understand that intuition is not a fuzzy feeling, but rather a rigorous source of insight. Robert Root-Bernstein (2002) makes a powerful argument that all scientific thought occurs first as an aesthetic intuition, and is then confirmed by verbal logic. Therefore aesthetics guides our mathematical exploration and is the basis for our mathematical reasoning. But we often show only the final algorithmic logic to our students.
  • Results: Mathematicians don’t often discuss aesthetics explicitly, but when they do, they usually point to theorems and proofs, which they insist should be elegant. The American mathematician Morris Kline observed that “Much research for new proofs of theorems already correctly established is undertaken simply because the existing proofs have no aesthetic appeal” (1964). Mathematicians especially appreciate results which are surprisingly simple or have significant connections or visual appeal. Such results are said to be beautiful. The Mandelbrot Set, for example, is beautiful partly because its definition is surprisingly simple and partly because it has great visual appeal. It is interesting to note that criteria such as significant connections indicate that beautiful results will be among the most useful and important. Criteria such as surprise suggest that beautiful results may be important for insight and understanding, and therefore also for education.

So mathematics is seen to be aesthetic “almost entirely.” At this point, some would say the discussion is merely philosophical and has no real world implications. Indeed, most mathematicians give aesthetics little explicit thought unless questioned about it. It is perhaps for this reason that many educators have not picked up on the importance of aesthetics in mathematics.

Simple, visual “proof” of the Pythagorean Theorem by Bhaskara II (12th century AD)
Simple, visual “proof” of the Pythagorean Theorem by Bhaskara II (12th century AD)

The Christian View

Throughout history, most mathematicians have been Platonist, at least in practice. We tend to think that mathematical ideas are discovered, rather than invented. In more recent times, some have questioned this, claiming that mathematics is simply the brain’s way of understanding how the universe is structured, and mathematics could be very different for an extraterrestrial species. (See, for example, Lakoff & Núñez, 2000.) Others disagree, pointing out how mathematics inexplicably predicts new discoveries. Of course, all agree that certain things, such as notation, conventions, and choice of axioms, are man’s invention. But where do the beautiful results we admire come from? The Greeks cannot be said to have “invented” the Pythagorean Theorem. Most would agree they (and other cultures) “discovered” it.

Most Christian theologians, from Augustine (354 – 430 AD) onwards, as well as Christian mathematicians, have agreed with a Platonist perspective, believing that mathematics is in the mind of God, and we discover these eternal truths. Mathematics cannot be part of Creation because it is not a physical part of nature—it is a collection of abstract ideas. One does not physically create abstract ideas, one conceives them. And God must have always known these ideas, so they have always been part of his thoughts. Mathematics preceded Creation and is untouched by the Fall. It is perfect and beautiful and contains awe-inspiring ideas, such as Cantorian infinity, which is part of God’s nature but not part of our physical universe. However, we ourselves are fallen, so our understanding and use of mathematics is imperfect.

Some modern Christian thinkers have proposed other possibilities similar to those of Lakoff and Núñez, making mathematics a human activity, or only one of many possible systems of mathematics in the mind of God. Nevertheless, all Christians affirm that mathematics is not independent of God. Even if there are other possible systems of mathematics, the one we know is the one God chose for us as good, and it has always been known by God. It is not some arbitrary invention. I like to think that when I am studying mathematics, I am studying the very thoughts of God, that mathematics is part of God’s attributes. God did not “create” love; God is love (1 John 4:8). Likewise God did not “create” one and three; God is one Being in three Persons. God did not “create” infinity; God is infinite. And so on.

But whatever position you take, whatever the ontology of mathematics, it should not surprise us that mathematics is beautiful, because God is beautiful. Mathematics is indeed “an aesthetic subject almost entirely.” Mathematical beauty and usefulness is a mystery only if we do not believe it comes from God. (See, for example, the classic article by Wigner, 1960.)

Euler's Identity, relating five fundamental constants and three basic operations, is often called the most beautiful result in mathematics (Wells, 1990).
Euler’s Identity, relating five fundamental constants and three basic operations,
is often called the most beautiful result in mathematics (Wells, 1990).

Education

Though aesthetics is part of the very foundation of mathematics, it is largely neglected in math classrooms. As mathematician Seymour Papert pointed out, “If mathematical aesthetics gets any attention in the schools, it is as an epiphenomenon, an icing on the mathematical cake, rather than as the driving force which makes mathematical thinking function” (1980, p. 192). However, an increasing number of researchers (including myself) have been noting important consequences of mathematical aesthetics for how we teach mathematics at all ages.

The interested reader can turn to researchers such as Nathalie Sinclair to see how modern research has been discovering the importance of aesthetics in mathematics education. Aesthetics is a “way of knowing” mathematics prior to verbal reasoning and should be an important part of our mathematics classrooms. Indeed, Sinclair (2008) has found that good math teachers tend to use aesthetic cues in their teaching implicitly, though they may not realize it. For example, teachers who reveal a “secret weapon” or present a surprising fact or note simpler ways to express certain solutions are modeling a useful aesthetic to their students. In my own research (Eberle, 2014), I have found that even elementary school children come with their own aesthetic ideas and use them in valid mathematical ways when given the opportunity to do open-ended math problems. And this is true of all children, not just those that are gifted in mathematics. Children’s initial aesthetic ideas are far from those of mathematicians, but through experience they are refined. Educators from John Dewey to the present day have argued that aesthetics is important for all of education, and now we are discovering how this is true for mathematics.

Nathalie Sinclair (2006) has proposed that mathematical aesthetics has three roles in education:

  1. Aesthetics gives intrinsic motivation to do mathematics. This is in contrast to the extrinsic coaxing we often use with students. Instead of “sugar-coating” math problems by placing them in artificial contexts, we should allow students to explore the natural symmetry and patterns found in every branch of mathematics. I sometimes challenge teachers to see how many patterns they can find in the “boring” multiplication table. They are usually very surprised. Students can also engage in mathematics in a natural way by pursuing projects they themselves have suggested. Such genuine contexts are highly motivational. (See these posts by Josh Wilkerson for a Christian perspective on this idea.)
  2. Just as with mathematicians, aesthetics guides students to generative paths of inquiry. When allowed to explore freely, children use their own aesthetics to find valid mathematical insights, though this may take time. Students need opportunities to pursue their own ideas and conjectures.
  3. Aesthetics helps students to evaluate their results. Often math is presented as black-and-white with only right and wrong answers. But if students are allowed to do more open-ended inquiry or project-based mathematics, they can use their growing sense of aesthetics to evaluate the solutions found.
Solution to an open-ended geometry problem found by a 4th grader by using aesthetic symmetry
Solution to an open-ended geometry problem found by a 4th grader by using aesthetic symmetry

Christian Education

As Christian educators, we should realize that God gives common grace and we should always be open to learning from the best results of secular research, filtered through the worldview shaped by our faith. Throughout history, Christians have often been at the forefront of recognizing the importance of aesthetics. God gave us our ability to appreciate beauty and patterns for a reason, and what is math if not the study of patterns (Hardy, 1940)? We Christians should be among the first to recognize the importance of educating the whole child, even in mathematics, and embracing research showing the importance of allowing aesthetics to have a deep role in education, including our mathematics instruction.

Even more importantly, we should be careful not to make a sharp dichotomy between “secular” knowledge and “spiritual” knowledge. Mathematics is often taught as if our faith had nothing to do with the knowledge we are learning. Though it is wrong to artificially “spiritualize” every lesson, at the very least Christian students should understand the relationship between their faith and their studies. One way to do this is to let students know that math is not just a series of arbitrary algorithms and heuristics to be memorized, but a rich, creative, beautiful subject to be explored and appreciated. And when students see some of the beauty of the subject, we can lead them to reflect on the Source of that beauty. Indeed, we are doing a great disservice to Christian students if we lead them to believe that a subject that is in the mind of God is somehow boring or ugly.

I have to admit I am distressed sometimes by certain popular views of mathematics. I remember reading one author who wrote that mathematics was part of Creation, and as such, the author seemed to believe mathematics was purely arbitrary, as if there were no special reason God created 2 + 2 to be 4. I often come across this idea that math is not understandable, a result of learning by rote. All we can supposedly do is grit our teeth and memorize the mysterious methods. This author’s solution was to teach students to plug away at exercises and learn to praise God every time they correctly found God’s answer, and be thankful that God, in his faithfulness, had not changed the answer in the meantime. I fear that such instruction will not generate praise for God but rather fear of mathematics. My hope is that we can learn instead how to teach that mathematics is a deep, joyful, meaningful, beautiful subject. It is a reflection of God’s nature.

Flower with spirals in Fibonacci sequence Helianthus flower, Bannerghatta Bangalore by L. Shyamal / CC-BY-2.5
Flower with spirals in Fibonacci sequence
Helianthus flower, Bannerghatta Bangalore by L. Shyamal / CC-BY-2.5

Conclusion

For Christians, mathematical aesthetics must not be an optional extra-credit topic, but must rather be at the very foundation of our mathematics teaching. As Christian educators, aesthetics should guide our understanding of mathematics, inform the way we teach, and be a goal for our students’ learning—and this from the youngest ages. Just as students learn to appreciate poetry or music, Christian students should learn that mathematics is beautiful, and why.

References

Burton, L. (1999). The practice of mathematicians: What do they tell us about coming to know mathematics? Educational Studies in Mathematics, 37(2), 121-143.

Eberle, R. S. (2014). The role of children’s mathematical aesthetics: The case of tessellations. The Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 35, 129-143.

Hardy, G. H. (1940). A mathematician’s apology (1967 with Foreword by C. P. Snow ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kline, M. (1964). Mathematics in Western Culture (Electronic version ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, G., & Núñez, R. E. (2000). Where mathematics comes from: How the embodied mind brings mathematics into being. New York: Basic Books.

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Poincaré, H. (2000). Mathematical creation. Resonance, 5(2), 85-94. (Original work published 1908)

Root-Bernstein, R. S. (2002). Aesthetic cognition. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 16(1), 61-77.

Sinclair, N. (2006). Mathematics and beauty: Aesthetic approaches to teaching children. New York: Teachers College Press.

Sinclair, N. (2008). Attending to the aesthetic in the mathematics classroom. For the Learning of Mathematics, 28(1), 29-35.

Spencer, J. (2001). Opinion. Notices of the AMS, 48(2), 165.

Wells, D. (1990). Are these the most beautiful? The Mathematical Intelligencer, 12(3), 37-41.

Wigner, E. (1960). The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences. Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, 13(1).