July 27th, 2008

planet

lockhart's lament

this weekend, while secluded at a relative's house, I finally got around to reading the 25 page Lockhart's Lament and it is as genius as everyone says it is!

It gels with me because I have always hate hate hate when people say they're "bad at math" or that "math is boring". I was bad at math once, or thought I was. I was not the kid who passed the multiplication times test first, okay? But years later, I got into geometry and calculus and noticed a totally different kind of math underneath it all... a sort of poetry that captured my attention and made sense. So I suspected that millions of people who suck at math just haven't found the right kind.

Lockhart says that that's the only kind worth being good at... not number manipulation steps. Math is about ideas and patterns. And it's the only kind worth teaching. But it's largely ignored. You wouldn't take a kid who's great at translating sheet music into different key signatures, and tell him he's a great musician.

Mathematicians are people who find beauty in the patterns and solutions of the world. They take big vague problems and try to find simple explanations for what's going on in our world... just like poets, artists and musicians. And math should be taught like art. People should be making math in schools. Kids should get the idea that it's a creative thing... not just something that will come in handy when you balance your checkbook someday. That's like saying you should learn to read just for street signs and job applications.

I struggled a lot in some of my grad school classes to prove things or arrive at some logical conclusion for projects, but at the end if I got to a place that made sense, I felt perfectly fulfilled. and i didn't see it as artistic because the idea that there are ARTS and SCIENCES is ingrained into me. but I know it means something. I tell people at work that my block diagrams are "zen".

somewhere along the way math became this thing that wasn't supposed to be fun. if your kid is "bad at math" his future is doomed, he can't be a doctor or a scientist, so you pressure the teachers to drill equations into him. you pressure the government to create tests to make sure the teachers are drilling equations into him. and the kid ends up hating math. then years later he has a kid, who also hates math, and it's okay because his parents hate math, and their parents, and their parents, and so on... soon we've created a whole culture where it's okay to throw your hands up and declare that you are not going to be one of those people. the number of engineers and scientists drops like crazy. people who do try to be mathematicians are hurt when they get into higher levels and realize they've been trained like monkeys and can't solve problems. They have to learn to shift gears and be the musicians they were discouraged from being.

there are teachers trying to do the right thing. slow down, find the beauty. and there are kids like me who realize they love math despite the world telling us it's supposed to be boring. but we'll only be okay if we sit back and look at what we've done to ruin it so far.