Math ‘n lit

“Connecting math with literature” is the hottest trend at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics convention, reports Math and Text.

What we’re talking about when we say “math and literature connection” is mixing math with stories in some way. That’s it. And connection is always a scary word for me too. Connecting math with anything can be a way to teach math by allusion — a very attractice alternative for those who would like to avoid teaching math altogether.

There’s no evidence math ‘n lit works better than teaching straight math. The idea has been around for more than 10 years but little research has been done on effectiveness.

Update: Via e-mail citing Illinois Loop, I learned about a Chicago area school that plans to teach math ‘n social justice:

Although teachers are using the Interactive Mathematics Program (what we call “classical knowledge”), they will also develop mathematics curriculum based on the generative themes (key social contradictions experienced in people’s lives) expressed by students and community members alike (“community knowledge”). (We include in community knowledge students’ language and culture as well.) At the same time, the school’s (mathematics) curricula will provide students opportunities to read and write the world (develop sociopolitical consciousness and a sense of social agency). We refer to the latter as “critical knowledge.” A key question is: how does one connect and synthesize all three knowledge bases-building on community knowledge so that students develop both critical and classical knowledge-while fully honoring and respecting each, to develop liberatory mathematics education in an urban Latino/a school given the current high-stakes accountability regimes and larger political climate?

In the latest Simpsons’ episode “Girls Just Want To Have Sums,” Springfield Elementary is split into a girls’ school, where math is replaced by self-esteem celebrations, and a boys’ school where real math is taught, amidst brutality.

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  1. This gives the “Three Rs” a new meaning.

    I can’t wait for postmodern math – or Marxist math. “Socialism only appears to ‘fail’ because you’re relying on capitalist calculations by dead white males.”

  2. SuperSub says:

    Aw come on… interdisciplinary learning is always better, even when the intended content is lost. Right?

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    “One, two, buckle my shoe, three, four, shut the door”. Like that?

  4. Too many “educators” seem to believe that nothing is worth studying for its own merits…it must always be combined with something else. I’ve also seen it the other way: historical study of the Holocaust must be combined with math (graphing of the number killed–how ghoulish can you get?)

    What this really reflects, IMNSHO, is the anti-intellectualism of many who claim to be in the teaching profession.

  5. I love math and literature both, but it seems to me that they don’t intersect all that much.

    “OK, class, let’s suppose the pearl that Kino finds is worth eleven thousand dollars. If his son’s doctor bills were to come to eight thousand dollars and Kino split what was left over evenly with his wife, how much would they each have?”

    Oh baby! That helps you with BOTH your math and your understanding of Steinbeck…

  6. Unity in diversity! Let’s see how many subjects we can cram into one big course we could call … “school”! Rob’s mathlit example could be expanded to include lessons in Spanish and economics (what is the Spanish phrase for “exploitation of the workers”?). Even drama and art could be added to the mix: a girl could play Kino, a boy could play Juana (why not? Gender-blind casting rulez!), and somebody could make props (a pearl and $11,000). Such a one-size-fits-all course could stimulate the multiple intelligences of students of varying backgrounds simultaneously. Ooh, lotsa polysyllabic words! Isn’t that exciting? Where’s my grant money?

    Seriously, there is something to be said for intersecting fields of study, and that something is not necessarily “NO!!”. However, I remain wary of attempts to mix ‘n’ match subjects – which in practice can lead to the dilution of subjects.

  7. The “synergy” obtained by combining fields of study in K-12 school is similar to the “synergy” often anticipated by proponents of corporate acquisitions and mergers. Both are a lot easier to obtain in theory than in practice.

  8. C’mon, those math textbooks always have word problems in them. I think that’s enough of a mix.

  9. ragnarok says:

    “What this really reflects, IMNSHO, is the [lightweight]-intellectualism of many who claim to be in the teaching profession.”

    Comes naturally.

  10. nedludd says:

    I believe that we are forgetting that many field of knowledge are interrelated. I agree that not all of them are related. The pendulum swings back and forth between the views that a rounded education is very valuable to the single minded pursuit of knowledge in one field to the exclusion of many others.

    I think that we are really concerned with the way in which they are integrated rather than the possibility that they might be integrated in some way. I am a believer that different fields can be integrated, but it takes persons with great experience and insight to make it a success.

    A good example of this is Douglas Hofstader’s work “Godel, Escher and Bach, the Eternal Golden Braid” that talks of specific things in Math, Musi and Art that are interrelated. Two others are Clifford Pinkover’s “Computers, Pattern, Chaos and Beauty” and David Gelertner’s “The Muse in the Machine”. If there is someone good enough to assemble a curriculum that can integrate literature and math, more power to them.