Teaching Mathematics with Love, Intimacy and Storytelling

The best way to connect an idea or a thought with any meaningful emotion and humanity is to have a one-on-one conversation — long on time and short on space. This is where intimacy and truth are born. Unfortunately, for the most part, mathematics is shared as a cerebral experience. In education, it rarely flows with any effusiveness through the heart. Sure, many teachers will proclaim they “love math”, but invariably this love is born out of having success and historical competency. It’s not the kind of love that Celine Delphy’s character Celine waxes on in the Before films, spanning 18 years.

And maybe that’s because the “math love” is seen as a completely different thing from…real love. Fair enough. But, if we accept Celine’s 3 am plea for “magic” in a deserted Vienna alleyway, then maybe we should reflect upon mathematics being communicated in a similar achingly romantic fashion. Now this might seem like a tall task, but its not. It simply involves being human — honest, passionate and vulnerable. It also involves one more thing. Storytelling. Intimate stories of not only the trials and tribulations of famous mathematicians, but equally compelling stories that belong to you. Your experiences with math — your joys, your struggles, your doubts, your uncertainties, etc.

The current hysteria around mathematics continues to be shackled to an unhealthy orthodoxy of curriculum, competencies, tasks, procedures and the long-running albatross of math education — assessment. It’s not to say these things are not important, but they never existed in the first 20 000 thousand years(if one counts the Ishango Bone as a referential birthplace for mathematics). All the organic humanity of math — joy and discovery — is now a glib footnote in how what the purpose of mathematics is in most institutions of education. It’s efficiency over emotion. It’s an industrious use of time not an intimate use of time.

In my book Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics, the Introduction is rightfully weighed down by a powerful scene from the movie Sideways. If you have seen the movie, you know exactly what I am talking about. It is, for me, one of the most romantic movie scenes ever. The whole scene is anchored by this soliloquy by Maya(Virginia Marsden) to Miles(Paul Giamatti).

“I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing, how the sun was shining that summer or if it rained… what the weather was like. I think about all those people who tended and picked the grapes, and if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I love how wine continues to evolve, how every time I open a bottle it’s going to taste different than if I had opened it on any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive — it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks … and begins its steady, inevitable decline. And it tastes so fucking good.”

Mathematics has an equally colorful palette to draw upon to paint such poetic landscapes. It has a history that encompasses every possible human experience of hope, imagination and ingenuity. This history is rarely expressed, never mind being shuttled through our fluttering hearts. It’s when we speak of mathematics with emotion and honesty, that it transcends our teaching. It is then when mathematics truly touches us, and in turn, we now let it touch our students. It’s no longer about correctness or even understanding for the moment, its simply about our attempt in sharing something

As mentioned in the beginning, the secret ingredients for intimacy are time and space. Time which seems endless and space which seems intensely small. It’s impossible to literally duplicate this in the classroom. But it is quite possible to have a mindset to duplicate this figuratively. To tell stories. To reflect. To feel humbled. To express gratitude to even just dot the spectrum of math’s history. To have inflections and pauses in your voice that express awe and wonder of math’s enormity in our universe. To have a disarming body language that embodies humility and lets your students know that you are still learning — like them.

If there is such poster for what I am talking about, then it must be the final scene in the movie Almost Famous. Russell Hammond, a big rock star now, finally gives the interview he has promised to William Miller. The expression on Russell’s face as he hears William’s opening question, “So Russell, what do you love about music?”, is exactly how we should feel about mathematics. Its a complex mix of feeling overwhelmed and excited about answering this question. In the end, its even simpler. It’s simply about being human and unapologetically happy for mathematics being present in our lives — and we being present with mathematics.

Conversation over…:)

Sunil Singh is an Ambassador of The Global Math Project(www.theglobalmathproject) and author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics(Coming out in 2017)

He can be followed on Twitter @Mathgarden