November 25th, 2012

The two subject areas I get called upon most to tutor in are Mathematics and Science. In my own public school education I loved Science for two reasons: I had great teachers (thank you Mr. Max Smith and Mr. Barry Guinn) and I got to discover the way the world worked. I also loved Geometry (thank you Mr. Roy Jameson) but I hated, absolutely loathed Algebra. Mr. James Craig may have been a solid mathematician but I found sitting in his classes brain numbingly boring and nothing in his class ever seemed to have even the remotest connections to how the world worked.

In the course of looking for something completely different in my blog files, I can across these bits from an essay written by Paul Lockhart titled A Mathematician’s Lament.

This essay first came to my attention nearly a year ago and it has been lost in my drafts until this morning. I particularly like how Lockhart makes the comparison between Math and Music because it is the connection between these two that has fostered my adult fascination with both.

All this fussing and primping about which “topics” should be taught in what order, or the use of this notation instead of that notation, or which make and model of calculator to use, for god’s sake— it’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic! Mathematics is the music of reason. To do mathematics is to engage in an act of discovery and conjecture, intuition and inspiration; to be in a state of confusion— not because it makes no sense to you, but because you gave it sense and you still don’t understand what your creation is up to; to have a breakthrough idea; to be frustrated as an artist; to be awed and overwhelmed by an almost painful beauty; to be alive, damn it. Remove this from mathematics and you can have all the conferences you like; it won’t matter. Operate all you want, doctors: your patient is already dead.

All of that is good. Hell, it’s very good, but this bit is what nailed Lockhart’s essay for me because it goes to the core of what I do my very best, every time I sit down with a student, to do.

Teaching is not about information. It’s about having an honest intellectual relationship with your students. It requires no method, no tools, and no training. Just the ability to be real. And if you can’t be real, then you have no right to inflict yourself upon innocent children.

Who were your real teachers?

Digging deeper this morning I discovered that once Lockhart’s 2002 essay broke out on the Internet, he was encouraged to write a book and that encouragement produced Measurement. I’ve ordered the book from the library (I’m No. 3 on the list of holds at the moment) and I’m looking forward to curling up in front of the fire to read what he has to say.

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