The Creativity and Beauty in Mathematics

What is mathematics, really?

And why do so many students either hate it or fear it – or both? Mathematics is different from other subjects, not because it is right or wrong, as people would say, and people hold beliefs about mathematics that they do not hold about other subjects.

One way that mathematics is different is that it is often thought of as a performance subject – if you ask most students what they think their role is in math classrooms, they will tell you it is to get questions right.

Students rarely think that they are in math classrooms to appreciate the beauty of mathematics, to ask deep questions, to explore the rich set of connections that make up the subject, or even to learn about the applicability of the subject; they think they are in math classrooms to perform.

This was brought home to me recently when a colleague, Rachel Lambert, told me her six-year-old son had come home saying he didn’t like math; when she asked him why, he said that “math was too much answer time and not enough learning time.”

Students from an early age realise that math is different from other subjects, and that learning gives way to answering questions and taking tests – performing.

The testing culture in the United States, which is more pervasive in math than in other subjects, is a large part of the problem. When sixth graders in my local district came home saying that they had a test on the first day of middle school, it was in one subject only: math.

Most students and parents accept the testing culture of math – as one girl said to me, “Well, the teacher was just finding out what we know.” But why does this happen only in math? Why do teachers not think they have to find out what students know on the first day through a test in other subjects?

And why do some educators not realise that constant testing does more than test students, which has plenty of its own problems – it also makes students think that is what math is – producing short answers to narrow questions under pressure?

It is no wonder that so many students decide mathematics is not for them.

There are other indicators that math is different from all other subjects. When we ask students what math is, they will typically give descriptions that are very different from those given by experts in the field.

Students will typically say it is a subject of calculations, procedures, or rules. But when we ask mathematicians what math is, they will say it is the study of patterns; that it is an aesthetic, creative, and beautiful subject (Devlin, 1997).

Why are these descriptions so different? When we ask students of English literature what the subject is, they do not give descriptions that are markedly different from what professors of English literature would say.

This is an extract from “Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching” by Jo Boaler