Why math classes are dull

Math is often seen as something you get or you don't. Most of us sit in class feeling like we don't. The fault is not with the subject itself but rather with the way we teach it. Mathematician Paul Lockhart wrote a 25-page essay titled "A Mathematician's Lament", wherein he states that students who feel that their mathematics classes are boring are right.

The true nature of math is art. Unfortunately, we wrongly teach it in a way that would just as easily ruin any other art.

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Why Math Class Is Boring—and What to Do About It

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Consider what music or painting would look like if we treat it like the typical math curriculum.

  • What if music education was all about theory, dots and lines that make up the language of music? What if playing and listening to music was put off until college?
  • Or, what if art students had to spend years only studying paints and brushes? Then they do pre-paint-by numbers to prepare them for the main paint-by number sequence. From there, only the students who know their colours and brushes get to actually paint.

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Like art, the purpose of math is the creation of patterns. And the material we use to create patterns is ideas. Math then belongs to the realm of fiction. For example, we can imagine a geometric shape with perfect edges, knowing that it could never exist in the real world. Then we can ask questions about it and create explanations.

Yet, when we teach math, we aim to repeat the steps of someone else's creation without asking how they got there, or why.

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An education in the art of mathematics is all about discovery. It means solving a problem that speaks to us at that point in time. It is a slow and thoughtful process. But, of course, it is much simpler to post a set of rules than to guide an artist. 

Mathematics should be something we do because it is an interesting and challenging way of teaching ourselves new ways of thinking and expressing ourselves.

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