Sunday, October 2, 2011

Math and Image

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the role of images in mathematics. When it was time to create fliers for upcoming elementary school Math Nights, I decided to forgo the usual clip art. I used some mathematical images, including Sierpinski’s Triangle and a fractal tree like the one shown here. I’m happy with the way the fliers turned out.

Professor Tim Whiteford blogged about these fliers and more in a post entitled “Sierpinski and the Joys of Learning Math”. Says Tim, “...communicating the aesthetic component of math, [is] a critically important element if we are ever going to help students enjoy math for what it is, the science of pattern. Imagine learning to read and write without poetry, fiction, literature and creative writing? Imagine if the only thing we learned in language arts was the ability to read directions and write formal descriptions? Imagine if reading and writing were reduced to a purely utilitarian function?”

Teachers often use more than words and numerals to teach mathematics. They incorporate image and structure by encouraging students to work with manipulatives, make towers, draw tesselations, and create patterns. In light of this good work, should we continue to explore creative ways of teaching math? I think so.

Matthew Peterson discusses how language can get in the way of math in his TED talk called “Teaching Math Without Words”. In this 8 minute video we get a glimpse of a software program designed to show math with pictures. I found the software visuals intriguing, as are other apps and interactive math websites (i.e. a Tetris-like game called Factor-tris). As I watched the video, I found myself wanting to defend the role of language and dialogue in mathematics education but Matthew beat me to it. He shared a poignant story about a student with autism finding richer language as a result of his work with the math program.

A great companion to Matthew Peterson is Temple Grandin’s “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds”. If you haven’t read her book, Thinking in Pictures, you can get the gist in this 16 minute TED Talk. Temple mentions math, saying “You see, the autistic mind tends to be a specialist mind. Good at one thing, bad at something else. And where I was bad was algebra. And I was never allowed to take geometry or trig. Gigantic mistake. I'm finding a lot of kids who need to skip algebra, go right to geometry and trig.” Temple is one of my heroes. I love what she has to say about her visual thinking and I love the embroidery on her quirky western shirts.

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