Monkeys, Shakespeare, and mathematics

I came over the phrase  ’the Shakespeare of mathematics’ a few days ago and it has made me think.

If you search the Internet for the phrase this page turns up. It is an article written by Marcus du Satoy, 2009, and starts with a question.

How do you spark off an interest in maths when the curriculum seems dreary?

Here are a few excerpts.

The teachers are required to teach a utilitarian and unadventurous curriculum that leaves them no room to explore the creative side of the subject. Indeed, most people are utterly surprised to discover that there is any creativity in mathematics.

I am not an educationalist. I am a mathematician. But I know what turned me on to the subject. It was being shown what mathematics is really about. It was being exposed to the big stories, the Shakespeare of mathematics that inspired me.

Why are more children not given the key to this secret garden? Why can’t we include the Shakespeare of maths in the curriculum?

A few months ago, he repeated the same thing at a Wolfram conference.

I disagree a bit. It is OK to bring up new exciting topics in maths class, but only if it is done in a way that allows the students to act like mathematicians.

I like better what Erich Witman said:

Modern mathematics teaching should start with problems and attempts at solving them, which should lead to a mathematics as a strategy of such attempts. – More

How does one excite the students into learning useful and/or beautiful mathematics while using their brains creatively?

That is my question given birth by the phrase ‘the Shakespeare of mathematics.’

Of course, it takes a village to educate a child, and if the rest of the village oppose the question little can be done.

Talking about Shakespeare and maths, a piece I read a long time in The World of Mathematics (1956) came to mind. It was about monkeys writing Shakespeare. Since my copies of the four volume opus by James R Newman is in another country I downloaded the work and a dvju reader, and found that it was called Inflexible Logic and was written by Russel Maloney (1940). You find it here on the Internet, thanks to the University of Houston.

The best way I can think of to show maths teachers (many of whom has not read or does not believe in George Polya’s ten commandments) how the problem may be used in class is through a dialogue. The students should not read the dialogue, because they should be set free to investigate any way the like. Then they will communicate to each other what they find of answers and new questions and the teacher will be the master of ceremony and not the source of all knowledge.

Here are Polya’s ten commandments:

  1. Be interested in your subject
  2. Know your subject
  3. Know about the ways of learning: The best way to learn anything is to discover it by yourself
  4. Try to read the faces of your students, try to see their expectations and difficulties, put yourself in their place.
  5. Give them not only information, but “know-how,” attitudes of mind, the habit of methodical work.
  6. Let them learn guessing.
  7. Let them learn proving.
  8. Look for such features of the problem at hand as may be useful in solving the problems to come – try to disclose the general pattern that lies behind the present concrete situation.
  9. Do not give away your whole secret at once – let the students guess before you tell it. Let them find out by themselves as much as is feasible.
  10. Suggest it, do not force it down their throats.

You should also read what Paul Lockhart has to say about the state of maths in schools. More quotes on my philosophy of maths education here.

My interest at the moment is to write dialogues to show how one may excite students into learning useful and/or beautiful mathematics while using their brains creatively. 

The dialogue on monkeys and Shakespeare will appear in this blog soon, but of course, there is room for your version of the dialogue in the comments section.

A Google search for ‘monkeys and Shakespeare’ gave some interesting hits worth reading:

  1. http://www.nutters.org/docs/monkeys
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_monkey_theorem
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_monkey_theorem_in_popular_culture
  4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-15060310
  5. http://www.jesse-anderson.com/2011/09/a-few-million-monkeys-randomly-recreate-shakespeare/

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