A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form (Lockhart)

Why, you might ask, would an English teacher read something about how to teach math? The simple answer is that I am mentoring a young math teacher. He reached the point in the year, the one I always hope menthes will reach, when he turned to me and asked if there was any professional literature I could recommend. I did some research and came up with this. And I’m glad I did. I made a great choice!

First of all, Lockhart’s prose pops off the page, He’s funny, irreverent and, I think, right. The traditional math subjects (Algebra I, Trigonometry, etc.) are artificial, the traditional sequence of these subjects is random, and the traditional method of instruction is stultifying.

Lockhart wants us to see math as an art, as a subject for play. He also argues, in a manner that resonates with this English teacher, that we should hook them first, and then teach skills as needed in context.

He disdains the notion that we should make real world connections for our students. No balancing checkbooks in class for Mr. Lockhart. He wants us to notice patterns and ask questions, and then notice what numbers and the value we assign to them (two doesn’t know that it’s two; it just is) do to help us make sense of the world.

The book is energizing. When his efforts turn more practical in the second half of the book, I was eager to be engaged. I want to be in his class. I worry that he presumes two qualities – curiosity and persistence – that are not always present. But I think his response would be that if we taught math this way sooner, then those two qualities would develop, well, exponentially.

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