Friday, December 24, 2010

Mathematics is like an elephant

I'm coming to the conclusion that one of the biggest challenges in high school mathematics (and probably university mathematics too) is coming to grips with the fact that in so many different ways, mathematics is very much like an elephant.

Mathematics is like an elephant? Well yes - if you think about the story of the blind men and the elephant - depending on what part of the animal you feel, you get a very different idea of what an elephant is.  There are so many different aspects and representations in mathematics, that it's all too easy for both teachers and students to be so focused on the particulars of the trunk, the tusks, the ears or the tail - and fail to see the whole elephant.
 Based on Sophie Woods (1916), World Stories for Children
Another way in which mathematics is like an elephant is it can be a little terrifying to come to grips with. I remember going with my little 3 year old brother to zoo and he screamed blue murder when he saw the elephant. For some students, the experience of that elephant is like this amazing 1888 Japanese print of the blind men and the elephant story- which is just too special to even consider vandalising with cartoon bubbles onto....
And maybe sometimes that's why as teachers we wrap those blindfolds on our students (and ourselves) and just hand the class a trunk or an ear to be examined. But the risk is, in the end, our students wonder why they are doing repeated exercises, year after year, on all these separate, unconnected body parts.

To work mathematically, you need to smell the whole elephant, hear its roar - and take pleasure in its beauty, strength and also its surprising grace and subtlety.  And if we don't want to scare the children? Well, who can resist a baby elephant?
Source: Matt Stanford (flickr)

In coming posts, I'll be considering other elephant aspects of mathematics, and what the elephant looks like when it's distributed in the Cloud....

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