Look around at people on a subway, in cafes, in their homes or sitting
in a park and you will be sure to find many of them reading. They are
reading for the intellectual stimulation, for the sheer pleasure of it
and for a host of other reasons. Now peer into those places and see
if you can find anyone working on a puzzle or someone playing with
numbers or a person reading a book that contains some mathematics.
Keep looking, keep looking, keep looking and in time you will discover
the truth, a hurtful truth to be sure, but a truth none the less -
Mathematics is not popular.
The same readers we met earlier would for the most part never dream of
doing anything remotely connected to mathematics. The last time that
they did so was in high school or college.
We will start with the premise that this is not a good situation for
society as a whole. Our goal will be to study how societal attitudes
towards mathematics can be changed and how we can make mathematics
more popular with the masses. We will discuss various ideas,
including the following strategy:
Expose students in school to the type of mathematics that can be
enjoyed outside of school by anyone no matter who they are or what
they do. Give students the opportunity to play with mathematical
puzzles, to study topics from recreational mathematics and to
occasionally see and feel the stunningly beautiful side of
mathematics. The result will be a higher percentage of people who
enjoy mathematics throughout their lifetime.
The good news about this strategy is that the materials have already
been produced. There are countless books on puzzles and topics from
recreational mathematics. Martin Gardner has spent his entire life
giving us materials for this very purpose. There are games that can
be used, magazines and videos are available - the goods are not in
short supply. What is in short supply are teachers who know about
these materials, teachers who can find ways of incorporating them into
the curriculum and teachers who feel they have permission to use them.
So our first question will be - "How do we make this type of
mathematics more popular with mathematics teachers?"
Neither our efforts to emphasize the utility of secondary mathematics
nor its privileged status as a crucial achievement for students
wanting to pursue post-secondary studies has made mathematics
appealing to students. Is the compulsory gotta-pass-it nature of math
the cause of its lack of appeal? Or does utility somehow reduce its
appeal? What other motivations for learning mathematics are there
that might make mathematics appealing?
Before we address these strategic questions or the underlying
nature-of-mathematics question (Is mathematics appealing?), we will
look at specific examples of teaching practice that address the appeal
1. Dressing it up-`Clothing' mathematics:
- in games and social processes (math is fun);
- in practical activity (math is useful)
- in historical and cultural perspective (math is human)
- in technology (math is current).
2. Stripping it down - Restoring mathematics to its essence (?):
- intellectual inquiry (math is a challenge);
- the `cold austere beauty' of Russel's logical systems (math is
As participants engage with positive examples of each approach, they
will help to construct a mission statement: how (whether?) students
(some? more? all?) can experience mathematics in school as a
positive and rewarding endeavour.