Mathematics Is Worthy

“When I began my college education, I still had many doubts about whether I was good enough for mathematics. Then a colleague said the decisive words to me: it is not that I am worthy to occupy myself with mathematics, but rather that mathematics is worthy for one to occupy oneself with.”

Rózsa Péter
Mathematics is beautiful
essay in The Mathematical Intelligencer

Rózsa Péter and the Curious Students

I would like to win over those who consider mathematics useful, but colourless and dry — a necessary evil…
 
No other field can offer, to such an extent as mathematics, the joy of discovery, which is perhaps the greatest human joy.
 
The schoolchildren that I have taught in the past were always attuned to this, and so I have also learned much from them.
 
It never would have occurred to me, for instance, to talk about the Euclidean Algorithm in a class with twelve-year-old girls, but my students led me to do it.
 
I would like to recount this lesson.
 
What we were busy with was that I would name two numbers, and the students would figure out their greatest common divisor. For small numbers this went quickly. Gradually, I named larger and larger numbers so that the students would experience difficulty and would want to have a procedure.
 
I thought that the procedure would be factorization into primes.
 
They had still easily figured out the greatest common divisor of 60 and 48: “Twelve!”
 
But a girl remarked: “Well, that’s just the same as the difference of 60 and 48.”
 

 
“That’s a coincidence,” I said and wanted to go on.
 
But they would not let me go on: “Please name us numbers where it isn’t like that.”
 
“Fine. 60 and 36 also have 12 as their greatest common divisor, and their difference is 24.”
 

 
Another interruption: “Here the difference is twice as big as the greatest common divisor.”
 
“All right, if this will satisfy all of you, it is in fact no coincidence: the difference of two numbers is always divisible by all their common divisors. And so is their sum.”
 
Certainly that needed to be stated in full, but having done so, I really did want to move on.
 
However, I still could not do that.
 
A girl asked: “Couldn’t they discover a procedure to find the greatest common divisor just from that?”
 

 
They certainly could! But that is precisely the basic idea behind the Euclidean Algorithm!
 
So I abandoned my plan and went the way that my students led me.
 

— Rózsa Péter
quoted at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive

For Further Exploration

Note: When the video narrator says “Greatest Common Denominator,” he really means “Greatest Common Divisor.”


The Challenge Continues

This is my third contribution to the blogging challenge #MTBoSBlaugust.

I’m aiming for at least one post each week. A simple, modest goal. But if I manage it, that will be four times the pace I’ve set in recent months.

So far, so good…

CREDITS: “Pink toned thoughts on a hike” photo courtesy of Simon Matzinger on Unsplash.

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

How to Succeed in Math: Answer-Getting vs. Problem-Solving

You want your child to succeed in math because it opens so many doors in the future.

But kids have a short-term perspective. They don’t really care about the future. They care about getting through tonight’s homework and moving on to something more interesting.

So how can you help your child learn math?

When kids face a difficult math problem, their attitude can make all the difference. Not so much their “I hate homework!” attitude, but their mathematical worldview.

Does your child see math as answer-getting? Or as problem-solving?

Answer-getting asks “What is the answer?”, decides whether it is right, and then goes on to the next question.

Problem-solving asks “Why do you say that?” and listens for the explanation.

Problem-solving is not really interested in “right” or “wrong”—it cares more about “makes sense” or “needs justification.”

Homeschool Memories

In our quarter-century-plus of homeschooling, my children and I worked our way through a lot of math problems. But often, we didn’t bother to take the calculation all the way to the end.

Why didn’t I care whether my kids found the answer?

Because the thing that intrigued me about math was the web of interrelated ideas we discovered along the way:

  • How can we recognize this type of problem?
  • What other problems are related to it, and how can they help us understand this one? Or can this problem help us figure out those others?
  • What could we do if we had never seen a problem like this one before? How would we reason it out?
  • Why does the formula work? Where did it come from, and how is it related to basic principles?
  • What is the easiest or most efficient way to manipulative the numbers? Does this help us see more of the patterns and connections within our number system?
  • Is there another way to approach the problem? How many different ways can we think of? Which way do we like best, and why?

What Do You think?

How did you learn math? Did your school experience focus on answer-getting or problem-solving?

How can we help our children learn to think their way through math problems?

I’d love to hear from you! Please share your opinions in the Comments section below.


CREDITS: “Maths” photo (top) by Robert Couse-Baker. “Math Phobia” photo by Jimmie. Both via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Phil Daro video by SERP Media (the Strategic Education Research Partnership) via Vimeo.

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.


Playful Math Education Carnival 106

Do you enjoy math? I hope so! If not, browsing this post just may change your mind.

Welcome to the 106th edition of the Math Teachers At Play math education blog carnival — a smorgasbord of links to bloggers all around the internet who have great ideas for learning, teaching, and playing around with math from preschool to pre-college. Let the mathematical fun begin!

By tradition, we start the carnival with a puzzle in honor of our 106th edition. But if you would like to jump straight to our featured blog posts, click here to see the Table of Contents.

Try This Puzzle

If you slice a pizza with a lightsaber, you’ll make straight cuts all the way across. Slice it once, and you get two pieces.

If you slice it five times, you’ll get a maximum of sixteen pieces. (And if you’re lucky you might get a star!)

  • How many times would you have to slice the pizza to get 106 pieces?

Click here for all the mathy goodness!

Confession: I Am Not Good at Math

I want to tell you a story. Everyone likes a story, right? But at the heart of my story lies a confession that I am afraid will shock many readers.

confessionPeople assume that because I teach math, blog about math, give advice about math on internet forums, and present workshops about teaching math — because I do all this, I must be good at math.

Apply logic to that statement.

The conclusion simply isn’t valid.

Continue reading Confession: I Am Not Good at Math

Quotable: Then and Now

“I used to think my job was to teach students to see what I see. I no longer believe this. My job is to teach students to see; and to recognize that no matter what the problem is, we don’t all see things the same way. But when we examine our different ways of seeing, and look for the relationships involved, everyone sees more clearly; everyone understands more deeply.”

Joe Schwartz
Then and Now


[Feature photo (above) by jenn.davis via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).]

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.


Math Inspirations: Why Study Mathematics?

why-study-math

What teacher hasn’t heard a student complain, “When am I ever going to have to use this?” Didn’t most of us ask it ourselves, once upon a time?

And unless we choose a math-intensive career like engineering, the truth is that after we leave school, most of us will never again use most of the math we learned.

But if math beyond arithmetic isn’t all that useful, then what’s the point?

If you or your student is singing the “Higher Math Blues,” here are some quotations that may cheer you up — or at least give you the strength of vision to keep on slogging.

We Study Mathematics…

To Understand Creation

I don’t want to convince you that mathematics is useful. It is, but utility is not the only criterion for value to humanity. Above all, I want to convince you that mathematics is beautiful, surprising, enjoyable, and interesting. In fact, mathematics is the closest that we humans get to true magic. How else to describe the patterns in our heads that — by some mysterious agency — capture patterns of the universe around us? Mathematics connects ideas that otherwise seem totally unrelated, revealing deep similarities that subsequently show up in nature.

— Ian Stewart
The Magical Maze

That vast book which stands forever open before our eyes, the universe, cannot be read until we have learnt the language in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.

— Galileo Galilei
quoted by Clifford Pickover, A Passion for Mathematics

To Train Our Minds

The investigation of mathematical truths accustoms the mind to method and correctness in reasoning, and is an employment peculiarly worthy of rational beings.

— George Washington
quoted by William Dunham, The Mathematical Universe

I told myself, “Lincoln, you can never make a lawyer if you do not understand what demonstrate means.” So I left my situation in Springfield, went home to my father’s house, and stayed there till I could give any proposition in the six books of Euclid at sight. I then found out what “demonstrate” means, and went back to my law studies.

— Abraham Lincoln
quoted by William Dunham, The Mathematical Universe

To Understand History

In most sciences, one generation tears down what another has built, and what one has established another undoes. In mathematics alone, each generation adds a new story to the old structure.

— Herman Henkel
quoted by Noah benShea, Great Quotes to Inspire Great Teachers

Biographical history, as taught in our public schools, is still largely a history of boneheads: ridiculous kings and queens, paranoid political leaders, compulsive voyagers, ignorant generals — the flotsam and jetsam of historical currents. The men who radically altered history, the great scientists and mathematicians, are seldom mentioned, if at all.

— Martin Gardner
quoted by G. Simmons, Calculus Gems

I will not go so far as to say that constructing a history of thought without profound study of mathematical ideas is like omitting Hamlet from the play named after him. But it is certainly analogous to cutting out the part of Ophelia. For Ophelia is quite essential to the play, she is very charming. . . and a little mad.

— Alfred North Whitehead
quoted in The Viking Book of Aphorisms

To Appreciate the Beauty

The mathematician does not study pure mathematics because it is useful, he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.

— Henri Poincaré
quoted by Theoni Pappas, More Joy of Mathematics

A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas. The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s, must be beautiful. The ideas, like the colors or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics.

— Godfrey H. Hardy
A Mathematician’s Apology

And Most of All, to Play

Mathematics is a world created by the mind of men, and mathematicians are people who devote their lives to what seems to me a wonderful kind of play!

Constance Reid

At age eleven, I began Euclid, with my brother as tutor. This was one of the great events of my life, as dazzling as first love. I had not imagined there was anything so delicious in the world.

— Bertrand Russell
The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell

I love mathematics … principally because it is beautiful, because man has breathed his spirit of play into it, and because it has given him his greatest game — the encompassing of the infinite.

Rózsa Péter
quoted by Rosemary Schmalz, Out of the Mouths of Mathematicians

Did you enjoy these? You can find plenty more on my Math & Education Quotations page.

  • I would LOVE to hear YOUR favorite mathematics, education, or inspirational quote. Please share in the Comments section below!

 photo exploreMTBoS_zpsf2848a9a.jpgNever Ending Math Problem photo (above) by Danny via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). This post is part of the #MTBoS #MtbosBlogsplosion blogging challenge.


howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.