High school mathematics – killing the fascination?

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Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

As I look forward to this year’s Heidelberg Laureate Forum, which kicks off later today (Sunday), I’ve decided I will ask as many of their participants about their experiences of learning, and sharing, the fascination of mathematics – and about the role high school mathematics played in their mathematical upbringing.

High school mathematics: two out of three?

Sometimes, it seems that when it comes to high school mathematics, you can only pick two out of three: mathematics, high school, or fascination. An excellent text, which I think ought to be read by everyone attending the HLF, is “A Mathematician’s Lament” written by Paul Lockhart, a mathematics teacher in Brooklyn, NY, in 2002 and published by Keith Devlin on the web pages of the Mathematical Association of America in 2008. Lockhart begins by imagining a world where music, or the arts, were taught in the same way that mathematics is taught in many schools:

A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made— all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer. Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music.” It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until college, and more often graduate school.

As Lockhart develops his theme further, the parallels with a high school mathematics teaching style that concentrates on memorizing formulae and recipes, leaving little room for creativity and fascination, come into focus. You don’t have to agree with everything Lockhart writes in this text (and I don’t), but the questions that it raises are troubling and important.

How did you get here?

HLF participants obviously form a highly selective sample of people that do not lack fascination for mathematics and computer science.

Martin Hairer at the 2014 HLF - no lack of fascination! Image credit: hlff/Flemming
Martin Hairer at the 2014 HLF – no lack of fascination! Image credit: hlff/Flemming

But although this is only one side of the medal, I hope for interesting material, maybe even trend, when I ask them (and you!): How did you get here? What awakened your interest in mathematics? Did you become enthralled with mathematics because of what you learned in school, or in spite of it? Because of that one very good teacher, or in spite of your teachers? I’ll be asking that question a lot over the next few days, but if you’re reading it here, please share your personal maths story in the comments!

[Thanks to Wladimir Lyra for pointing me to Lockhart’s text!]

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Markus Pössel hatte bereits während des Physikstudiums an der Universität Hamburg gemerkt: Die Herausforderung, physikalische Themen so aufzuarbeiten und darzustellen, dass sie auch für Nichtphysiker verständlich werden, war für ihn mindestens ebenso interessant wie die eigentliche Forschungsarbeit. Nach seiner Promotion am Max-Planck-Institut für Gravitationsphysik (Albert-Einstein-Institut) in Potsdam blieb er dem Institut als "Outreach scientist" erhalten, war während des Einsteinjahres 2005 an verschiedenen Ausstellungsprojekten beteiligt und schuf das Webportal Einstein Online. Ende 2007 wechselte er für ein Jahr zum World Science Festival in New York. Seit Anfang 2009 ist er wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie in Heidelberg, wo er das Haus der Astronomie leitet, ein Zentrum für astronomische Öffentlichkeits- und Bildungsarbeit, seit 2010 zudem Leiter der Öffentlichkeitsarbeit am Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie und seit 2019 Direktor des am Haus der Astronomie ansässigen Office of Astronomy for Education der Internationalen Astronomischen Union. Jenseits seines "Day jobs" ist Pössel als Wissenschaftsautor sowie wissenschaftsjournalistisch unterwegs: hier auf den SciLogs, als Autor/Koautor mehrerer Bücher und vereinzelter Zeitungsartikel (zuletzt FAZ, Tagesspiegel) sowie mit Beiträgen für die Zeitschrift Sterne und Weltraum.

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