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The Poetry of Numbers

  • Rayyan newsletter May

Maths, like music, has been referred to as a ‘universal language’.  Learning basic arithmetic is considered a practical skill required by all to function just as literacy is regarded as a key skill.  Yet, mathematics is more than just a means to an end and it offers a great deal of creativity as we learn to uncover the art within this fascinating subject.  We frequently try to justify the learning of Maths to school children by promoting its value as a means of coping in the modern world.  The best mathematicians step beyond this narrow definition and promote Maths as a thing of beauty in its own right because that is what it is. The best mathematicians in the world understand that logic, symmetry, predictability and, of course, the converse of those concepts is what creates the balance between art and science.  Seeing Maths as a practical part of our daily lives is important, but extending that understanding beyond the basic foundations of number patterns, geometry and problem-solving takes us to a higher level of understanding.

Maths is in everyday objects: the shape of a football or, as mathematicians would call it, a ‘truncated icosahedron’; buildings around us; engineering in our cars; the symmetry of nature.  In a professional environment, almost all careers will involve some statistical data analysis or basic Maths skills through to the more obvious Maths careers of accountants, computer programmers, chemists and engineers.  On the television, we come across advertisement campaigns for discounts; political campaigns blinding us with statistics and government figures.  Yet, children in schools often just see Maths as a subject with homework and exercises to complete in class but we want children to see the bigger picture – Maths as the poetry of numbers.

Let’s start at the basics. We expect children to learn the main skills of arithmetic and language.  We accept that learning to read, write and do sums is important.  So why is it that you often hear people saying they are not good at Maths and this statement is often met with approval and acceptance?  However, would you hear anyone admit that they can barely read or write?  If they did say this, would we be so gracious in accepting their claim? Why is it that we think it is fine to say we are not good at Maths? It is because of the fact that too often, we forget the creative and fun part of “playing” with numbers.  This is celebrated in language as we play with words, create poetry, write stories.  The same can happen in Maths.

Research at Stanford has agreed that when it comes to adding up, like learning a language, it is experience and practice that counts so it is something that we should do at home as well as in school. Learning Maths is a wonderful life-skill but in order to develop those basic skills of understanding of number and patterns we need to be motivated to learn, and that is where the fun comes in.  Maths is an amazing combination of logic and creativity and should be treasured as a subject for investigation as well as a means to an end.  Similar to learning a language, the best in class do not just learn what that language means in factual terms, they learn how to use it to create beauty in stories and poetry. Just as conversations help develop language skills, the frequency of number speak at home has a great impact.  It impacts how well children understand basic mathematical concepts such as the Cardinal Number Principle through to how we use number patterns to solve problems as well as creating new ideas.

Most adults think that the goal to teaching young children Maths is to make it real and meaningful, relating it to their daily lives. However, the real way is to make Maths a creative process that allows children to discover the joy that the subject has to offer. If parents do not enjoy Maths, they might unconsciously impart their distaste for the subject to their children, giving them the impression that it is all right to do badly in the subject.  Mathematical skill is not a hereditary gene built into your DNA; it is a subject to be mastered in the same way as the written word is a vital life skill. Luckily, there are many ways to make Maths fun with online games and apps, not forgetting the non-digital board games which involve counting.  There are so many ways to build knowledge in a fun and meaningful way.

Maths builds your intellectual muscle.  It plays a vital role in your life and parents who show enthusiasm for Maths will see that interest rub off on their children. Practicing Maths no longer becomes a chore but a fun activity, an intellectual and a creative challenge where encouraging children to succeed is key. As adults, we should not be afraid of mathematics but rather we should embrace it and help our children to be positive, be ambitious and be a creative mathematician.