Mathematics Is Beautiful

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Imagine, Teachers of Mathematics, that you are standing on the stage of a school hall at the weekly school assembly. You are next to speak. In front of you are 1500 bored teenagers sitting on the wooden floor in hot stifling conditions. The assembly has already been going more than 15 of its allotted 20 minutes. I found myself in this predicament soon after taking up my position of Head of Mathematics at my last school. Here I was about to engage in my first public speaking performance on the subject of Mathematics. What could I say, as the new head of Mathematics, to inspire the assembled hordes of teenagers to listen to what I had to say about the Australian Mathematics Competition.

You can imagine the negative images that raced through my mind in the moments leading up to my taking the microphone for the first time. The time waiting to speak seemed like an eternity. The thoughts going through my mind were the images of difficult days in my life as a mathematics teacher. I’m sure you have experienced some of these in your own days in the maths classroom sitting on the other side of the desk from the teacher.

Let me tell you about some of them. Picture the start of a lesson. I ask the class to show me their homework. I check it! Tom has not anything on his page!

“I just could not do it sir! This stuff is so hard!” “I don’t understand it! I just don’t get it!”

“What don’t you understand?”

“I don’t know.”

The image switches to a parent teacher evening. I am with a distraught mother discussing her daughter’s lack of success. She says to me:

“I hated maths. It never made any sense to me, how can we expect my daughter to be any good at it and anyway Maths is not a girl thing.”

The scene switches once again to another parent interview. This time I am talking to a highly successful businessman about his son’s lack of progress and interest in Maths.His words came back to me with a real start”

“Maths never made any sense to me.

It was just not relevant!

I flunked maths but look at me now.

I really didn’t need this stuff.”

Then, all of a sudden, my mind was thrust back into the present. I had a job to do – an important job, too. After all, the skills of mathematics were second only in importance to skills of learning our native language! It was my responsibility through my enthusiasm for mathematics to get that message through to our students. This was my challenge and I had to rise to it here and now in front of these 1500 bored teenagers.

I was called to the microphone.I walked tall and confidently to it.I began my first public speaking engagement on the subject of mathematics in the strongest, most commanding voice I could muster:

“Good morning, students. Do you know that Mathematics is Beautiful?”

As you can imagine there was uproar on the school assembly. The students were shocked that I would come out and say such a thing. But it gained their attention, and I was able to promote the Australian Mathematics Competition. To reinforce and create the impression I had made, I finished with the words:

“Remember students, Mathematics is Beautiful!”

You are wondering if this is a true story. Yes, it was a true and a continuing story. Now, every year after that initial year, there was an expectation that something outrageous may be said about mathematics when students saw me on the stage at assembly time. The Deputy Principal was often in on the act. He/She might simply introduce me by saying: “Mr Boyce is here this morning to talk to you about that beautiful subject – mathematics.” Or I might simply begin by saying, “I’m not going to remind you that Maths is Beautiful – you already know that.” Or “You know what I’m going to say, so I won’t say it.”

There are, of course, other times when I speak of mathematics as beautiful. Let me take you back to your schooldays and let’s talk about Algebra. I know what you are thinking as you read this – Algebra was always “double dutch” to most of you. Am I not correct? Yes, I know I am.

Picture yourself back in a school maths classroom. You have been doing algebra for a couple of weeks. It has been a time of frustration. Your teacher writes on the chalkboard what appears to you to be a complicated algebraic expression, e.g.

He then asks you to simplify the expression. Inwardly you yell, “Help! I can’t do that.” Dutifully you write the expression on your pad. You check it to make sure it is correct. Then you are not sure of what to do next. You stare at your page. You don’t know how to even start. You have what students call a mental block. The seconds drag on and on. Eventually, the teacher intervenes and asks who has got a solution. You look around. Very few hands go up. The teacher looks disappointed, perhaps frustrated. He has been teaching these concepts for two week. BUT, as will all teachers in this position, he picks up the chalk and tries again.

In the next few minutes, you watch your Maths teacher perform some mathematics magic and come up with (x -­ 1) as his answer.

“Wow! How did he get that?” you say to yourself. “I would like to be able to do that.”

You look around and hear someone else say: “I’ll never need this stuff”.

In the meantime your teacher, with a smile on his/her face, simply says: “Isn’t it beautiful! That’s the power of algebra at work.”

The teacher looks around the class. He notices a smile break out on the face of Caitlin. She knows after the weeks of frustration, persistence and self-discipline she has finally climbed the mental barrier of Mathematics. The teacher recognized the moment. It is a time of victory for him too. A small tear makes its way to his eye. He blinks and he too smiles. For him, it is a beautiful moment in time – a moment rarely experienced but one that makes the frustration of teaching mathematics worthwhile. He knows that this student will see mathematics as he sees it – beautiful, exciting, and relevant and it can give infinite pleasure to those who come to love it. As with all pursuits in life, if you love them enough, they will give up their secrets to you.

Mathematics is all around us. It is exciting and relevant. It gives infinite pleasure to many of us without realizing it. Mathematics can be seen in every new invention or scientific discovery. Did you know that the Planet Pluto was discovered as a result of a mathematical calculation? Almost every game we play and enjoy involves some mathematical reasoning. Our great architecture has a mathematical beauty about it. The Sydney Opera House is an example.

But let me conclude with the words of Bertram Russell: He wrote:

“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth but supreme beauty – a beauty, cold and austere, like that of a sculpture.”

It is not cold and austere to me, it is alive and growing. Let me ask you to forget the sterile mathematics of your school days. Let me ask you to look around you each day and recognize that mathematics as a way of thinking and learning is an important part of your life and remember: “Maths is Beautiful”.

Our author, Rick Boyce, taught Mathematics in High Schools for over 40 years, finishing his career with fifteen years as a head of department. During that time, he became interested in professional development of Mathematics Teachers. He organised at his school over 100 professional development workshops, presenting many workshops himself.

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