Teaching maths via stories

PTI New Delhi | Updated on January 22, 2018


Not many people care about the underlying mysteries of how numbers and patterns make the world tick.

But for some like Oxford professor Marcus du Sautoy, one of the foremost minds in the world on mathematics, numbers are a way to tell stories about life, the universe and everything else in between.

Du Sautoy was here recently to launch his book “Number Mysteries,” in which he tackles small mysteries of maths in everyday life building up to a larger story about some of the great unsolved problems. The event was organised by the British Council.

“The book picks five different areas through these small stories of maths, builds up the fact that we don’t understand prime numbers, the geometry of our universe and what possibilities there could be solving equations. People love stories. And I think mathematics is full of good stories. Its language underlines the way the universe works,” Sautoy says.

School curriculum

For du Sautoy though, the book is also like a manifesto for how school curriculum should be teaching the subject.

“…the book in a way is my manifesto for what I think our curriculum in schools should be about. I think the maths we teach in school is really boring and too technical. There are great things we could tell them that we are somehow missing out on,” he says.

Expressing his disappointment on the flawed curriculum which “rather than drawing people to maths, ends up alienating them” the celebrated mathematician also stressed the importance of connecting the dreaded subjects to different fields to make it more accessible.

“The stories I tell are about maths in music, maths in architecture, maths in playing games. We are missing connecting our mathematics curriculum with the rest of the curriculum in schools and just our lives in general,” he says.

This, he says can be deadly, because it has taken the heart out of the subject.

“You may be good at it but if you don’t understand why it works that way or how it can be adapted, then that is a shame.”

Art in Maths

Like former Brazil football star Roberto Carlos free kick in 1997 against France, which dramatically swerved into the net from the unlikeliest of angles, or patterns in lottery ticket numbers, or maybe even population cycles of lemmings, mathematics is a way of finding meaning in the world for du Sautoy who was made the fellow of the American Mathematical Society in 2012.

“I do talk about patterns and symmetry. That is what is at the heart of being a mathematician, seeing something very messy and focusing in on what is making it tick. If I can analyze things and see patterns then I have got control,” he says.

According to him, it is important not just to show real life applications but to also bring forth the artistic side of maths, or connections with history.

Du Sautoy says the joy in mathematics comes from solving problems.

“People often say it’s a hard subject but that should be celebrated because if something is too easy it gets boring.

People love sudokus because they enjoy being stuck a little bit before stumbling on to the solution,” he says.

Likening the subject to the perilous quest undertaken by Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, du Sautoy says a lot of the maths he creates is about taking his fellow mathematicians on an exciting journey.

“I describe it a bit like ‘Lord of the Rings’.You start in the shire in a very stable place where you understand it all. and then you take your readers gradually into unknown Mordor,” he says, “but then you resolve it and you feel a sense of satisfaction by the end of the proof.”

Published on September 07, 2015

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