20 Sep 2017

The Mistaken Monolith of Math

By Gillian O'Reilly

“I don’t like math.”...“I’m not good at math.”...“Math is hard.”

Beautiful math:
a Moebius strip
In light of the current discussions around falling math scores in Ontario, I am reminded of how much these comments from kids - and, even more so, from adults - drive me crazy!

It’s not because I think everyone should like math or be good at it. It’s because the speakers are treating math as one huge monolithic subject instead of many fascinatingly interconnected strands.

Contrast this with our attitude to English literature. If a student loved short stories and poetry but was left unmoved by plays, would we say that she/he didn’t like English? No. If a winner of the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize was incapable of writing a science fiction novel, would we say they were “not good” at English? Hardly. But we allow ourselves to think we aren’t good at math or don’t like it if we aren’t accomplished at every aspect.

This gorgeous image is math - an algebraic fractal called a Mandelbrot set.
A fractal is a mathematically constructed pattern of shapes that are miniature
 versions of the whole shape and that echo themselves endlessly. Algebraic fractals,
like this Mandelbrot set, may look wild but are still symmetrical at heart.
Image credit: Wolfgang Beyer [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

I used to be as guilty of this as anyone. Going through school, I had very different impressions of my ability in math, depending on what subjects we were learning. I eventually discovered that my lack of enthusiasm for division didn’t arise from missing 40 days of school in Grade 4. In fact, it is not uncommon to find addition and multiplication easier than subtraction and division.

I loved math the years I encountered geometry (nothing like encountering math with letters to make a bookworm like the subject) and algebra (reducing an unknown to one possible answer intrigues a mystery lover). Fortunately, while other years weren’t so positive, I managed to retain a fondness for the weird, the cool and the paradoxical in math.

When Cora Lee and I wrote The Great Number Rumble: A Story of Math in Surprising Places (Annick Press), we both wanted young readers to find that same pleasure. It didn’t matter whether they found it in fractals or Fibonacci numbers, topology or tessellations, or in the semi-prime numbers which I find inexplicably cool. All that mattered was that they found some part of mathematics to engage them.

If they can do that and can stop seeing math as one big indivisible mass, students - and maybe even adults - can start being able to say, “I like math,” “I’m pretty good at most of it,” or  “This is a bit hard, but it is really fun.”


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