Sunday, February 5, 2012

When do we get to read Hamlet (for mathematics)?

Our young students explore their cultural and intellectual heritage:

As interesting as we teachers may find middle school and junior school mathematics, our students have been experiencing revolutionary ideas in other subjects for years. The amazing explosion of new, modern radical ideas hasn't hit the mathematics classroom yet - we've only barely touched the beginning of the scientific revolution.

But now in senior high school, for those who chose to follow the path ...

I've just started a calculus course with my Year 11 students - and I really felt it was important for them to gain a sense of the sweep of history and mathematical thought through the ages, and hopefully build a sense of excitement that something amazing is about to be added to their mathematical world. Something that parallels the excitement they hopefully felt when they first encountered modern literature, explored genetics, or wondered if Jackson Pollock's work really was art.

Now in Year 11, our students finally get to open up the great mathematical books of the early modern era - the ideas of Newton, Leibnitz and Euler - that's our "Hamlet"!

Continuing the story ...

Strongly aware I was showing these pictures to a class of  intelligent young women:

Challenge questions:
  • Do your students know who Euclid is? Who Descartes is?  I was quite disturbed to discover my new class of students had absolutely no idea. Is there any other school subject where we would not place knowledge in a cultural and historical context?
  • Can you fit some Cantor,  Godel or Mandelbrot into your teaching? Young people are fascinated, indeed sometimes troubled, by the concepts of truth, reality and infinity - it's part of growing up - but they probably never mention this in mathematics class.
  • Who is Emmy Noether? And why did Einstein refer to her as one of the greatest mathematicians of the century? What is the connection between Emmy Noether and the Large Hadron Collider? We really ought to have a plaque commemorating her in every mathematics and science classroom.

This collection of images and ideas is based on a presentation I prepared for my incoming Year 11 class this week.  At the end of the sequence we celebrated our culture by watching my favourite Sesame Street video (seriously!) Now that's culture for you.


  1. Truly excellent point on the need for culture in the mathematics classroom. This seems like it must have been a fantastic presentation for your students.

  2. I couldn't agree more. There is so much more to explore in mathematics. Sadly there are a good number of mathematics teachers who do no more than teach what they learned themselves at school. Let's learn about Chaos theory, fractals, topology, spherical geometry and the four colour theorem. Who is Andrew Wiles and why was Yutaka Taniyama so important to him?
    There so much culture as well as history to think about - which languages distinguish between the ordinal and cardinal functions of number and which don't? How has maths developed in the cultures using those languages?