Math Education’s Moral Compass is Broken and Only Play Can Fix it.

Sunil Singh
Aug 25 · 4 min read

How much do we value play in mathematics? No, really. How much? Well, it’s kind of trick question. Play isn’t a subset of mathematics and it shouldn’t be some buried bullet point in curriculum documents.

All mathematics is play.

Our misunderstanding of that notion opens up the ideas that we may not completely understand play or the grand scope of mathematics. Maybe it is a bit of both. Perhaps our only knowledge of mathematics is institutional, which gives us a view on the landscape of mathematics that is rather opaque — at best. We get bogged down in delivery, structure, standards, and measurement. Which means that play is a neglected understudy in its own story of mathematics, yielding the stage to ideas that undercut its feral beauty and brilliance.

“We are born to play and get to know our world. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about puzzles and games is that I believe they can change the way people think and improve the quality of life. They make us more inventive, more creative, more artistic. They can allow us to see the world in new ways. They can inspire us to tackle the unknowable. They can remind us to have fun. They can make us more healthy and even prolong our lives”

Ivan Moscovich, author of more than 40 illustrated books on math puzzles

That quote above is an excerpt from the foreword to the book The Puzzle Universe: A History of Mathematics in 315 Puzzles.

Immediately after that quote, Hal Robinson, Executive Director of the British Interactive Media Association, who wrote the foreword, continued with this:

“Humans derive great satisfaction from finding patterns, but we gain even greater pleasure from understanding what lies behind the patterns. The discovery of an unexpected connection, of some magical regularity, provokes a delightful combination of surprise and intellectual satisfaction. We may feel a sense of awe at the beauty of what we have uncovered.”

This is the mathematics experience that every student deserves.

Considering anxiety with learning mathematics has been historically high among the population, math education has consistently fallen short of the lofty aspirations communicated above.

And, when thousands of people fall off the train of math education, where do they reconnect? That is if they want to reconnect…

There is a movie coming out in 2020 called Gatekeeper: Math in America, directed by Vicki Abeles. She also directed the critically acclaimed Road to Nowhere, which showed that the US education system is overrun with a performance culture, robbing children of their health, well-being, growth, and learning.

Currently, the idea of equity in math education is a hot topic. But, if equity means giving all students access to the same system of stress/performance, then our mission, noble in intentions, might not be noble in outcomes.

To revive play in mathematics is sadly an uphill climb. The word itself has a self-effacing element that probably gets steam-rolled in the standards heavy language of a math curriculum.

The call for mathematical play is beyond some desired learning objective. Combined with the rise of mental illness and anxiety among children/adolescents, and the championing of play by Pediatricians and Child Psychologists, play in mathematics must be seen as a moral imperative.

Education removed play from mathematics for purposes that were aligned for an efficient, factory model of education. Education is now morally obliged to put it back — in its entirety. It is no coincidence that this ethical installation will have to coincide with the removal of the testing/ranking/sorting culture.

There is no guarantee that any of this will happen. But, if we want to start talking about humanizing mathematics with any seriousness, then mathematics and play will have to be reunited with vigor and veracity. If not, whatever we continue to teach students about mathematics will be an abridged and colorless version.

Classroom teachers and even math leaders are more or less powerless. The testing culture is synthetically woven into the fabric of math education by self-serving, myopic, and ego-driven governments. But, it is still fair to ask this question — What will we do…?

Sunil Singh

Written by

Author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics and Co-Author of Math Recess: Playful Learning in the Age of Disruption. Speaker. Buzzmath.

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