We’re hiding math’s masterpieces from students, writes Edward Frenkel, a Berkeley math professor in the Los Angeles Times.
Imagine you had to take an art class in which you were taught how to paint a fence or a wall, but you were never shown the paintings of the great masters, and you weren’t even told that such paintings existed. Pretty soon you’d be asking, why study art?
That’s absurd, of course, but it’s surprisingly close to the way we teach children mathematics.
Math is the “language of abstraction,” writes Frenkel. To “gain proficiency with abstraction,” students need “mathematical knowledge plus conceptual thinking times logical reasoning.”
Frenkel talked about math ideas with students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades at a New York school. They were too young to be scared by math.
Using a Rubik’s Cube, he explained that every rotation of the cube is a “symmetry,” and these combine into what mathematicians call a group. “I saw students’ eyes light up when they realized that when they were solving the puzzle, they were simply discerning the structure of this group,” writes Frenkel.
We next studied the majestic harmony of Platonic solids using dice. And I told the kids about the curved shapes (such as Riemann surfaces) and the three-dimensional sphere that give us glimpses into the fabric of our universe.
The professor dreams of spending 20 percent of class time “opening students’ eyes to the power and exquisite harmony” of math. The rest of the time they’d learn the multiplication tables, etc.
Would they be inspired? What percentage of math teachers are capable of doing this?