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Joyful Mathematics — What it is and how to spread it

Joyful math. It’s a phrase that’s catching on in the math popularization community. 

The Julia Robinson Math Festival is on a mission to “spread joyful math”. The Global Math Project seeks to “cultivate a world united through the joyful learning of mathematics.” And declares that math is “a beautiful, interesting, playful, creative, and human-centered sense-making endeavor.”

So why the exuberant adjective? Why do we need to proclaim math to be joyful? 

Simple. Most people are convinced that math is inherently boring and lifeless.

And I’m not just talking about people who dislike math. Even teachers who enjoy teaching math, and STEM experts who enjoy sharing the joys of Science, Technology and Engineering, are often hard pressed to muster any enthusiasm for Math itself. 

My colleague Dave Hendry, with whom I worked at Age of Learning, once produced a series of documentaries where he interviewed top scientists and engineers in many industries to learn how they used mathematics in their job. 

To his astonishment many of his subjects claimed not to use any math at all. When he pointed out the many ways they did use math, they slowly realized he was right. 

The reason they didn’t immediately recognize mathematics in their own work was that the math they did at work looked and felt different from the math they did in school. So in their mind, it didn’t count as mathematics.

In this article I’m going to explore what joyful math is, what kills math joy, and the challenges that face those of us who want to spread math joy.

What Joyful Mathematics Is

Joy, of course, means happiness, but it’s a deeper and often more lasting emotion than everyday happiness, which can be fleeting and circumstantial. Think of the joy of meaningful events, like being with friends, graduating from school, or getting your first driver’s license, or listening to a favorite song for the first time.

Joyful mathematics is mathematics that brings you deep and lasting happiness, inspires a deep sense of being connected to something larger than yourself, in the same way that great music, art or literature can stir your soul. 

It can be as simple as having your mind twisted by Möbius Strips, as mind-expanding as number bases other than 10, as ineffable as the mystery of infinity, or as world-changing as the concept of calculus. Or it can be as bluntly mundane as the inescapable fact that 2+3=5.

Well that’s nice, but Houston, we have a problem. If you already experience math as joyful, then you know what I mean. But if you don’t experience math as joyful, this description may strike you as alien, hopelessly geeky, and not for you.

So I’ll simply report that for me, math is a joyful activity that connects me to my friends, fires up my imagination, stuns me with beauty, and invites me to participate in a boundless tradition of creativity and invention. 

I’m eager to share math joy with others, and deeply sad that so many people have never experienced it. I don’t expect most people to share my level of enthusiasm, but I do want people to have tasted this sweet fruit.

What Kills Math Joy

What kills math joy? School.

Math, as presented in school, is an unending cycle of memorizing meaningless formulas in order to pass tests, then clearing them from your head to make room for the next lesson. It’s a race to see who can get the right answer first, and an endless marathon that eventually humiliates everyone into feeling stupid. Sure, you have a vague sense that some of it might be useful some day, and you may get some pleasure out of mastering pieces of it, but that’s about it.

So what’s going on here? Certainly math is a field where there ARE right answers, so we can’t pretend that precision doesn’t matter. And concepts in math, more than in most other subjects, do rest on a tower of prerequisite concepts, which must be mastered in sequence.

But to make a long story short, math as taught in school focuses solely on teaching the mechanics of math. The notation, the algorithms, the formulas. Without ever getting to anything meaningful, beautiful, or awe-inspiring. That’s a very narrow slice of mathematics.

And guess what? You can kill interest in any subject by just teaching the mechanics without the meaning. 

If all you ever learned in English class was spelling and grammar, and you never read any great books (or even knew that books existed), you’d hate language class. 

If you all you ever learned in Music class was learning the rules of proper notation and music theory, and you never listened to or played any music, you’d hate music class. 

If all you ever learned in History class was memorizing dates and place names, and you never learned the stories of the people in history, you’d hate history class. 

Oh wait, that’s exactly how I learned history in school, which is why I hated history class. But I now I love watching history videos on YouTube, because they tell fascinating stories that help me make sense of the world. 

All great teachers know that their first job is to capture their student’s interest. And so they lead with intriguing stories, dramatic demonstrations, or awesome performances.

But the sad truth is that public school teachers here in the United States, and to various degrees in other countries, are under enormous pressure to race through a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch thin. It’s a race that guarantees that most learning will be lost in the dust. 

Schools get away with this form of intellectual murder because they have a captive audience. And that has created generations of adults who have been beaten into complacency, convinced them that rote formulas are all there is to mathematics.

The truth is that math is something far larger and more interesting, and that everyone is born a mathematician. You can’t be alive and not think mathematically.

Spreading Math Joy

So what’s a math evangelist to do? 

The first step is simply to expose the public to joyful math. That’s why 

These institutions are already reaching millions of kids and adults worldwide, introducing them to joyful math art projects, games and activities where everyone can participate and succeed.

I encourage everyone to check out these resources. Many are freely available online. They’re fabulous.

All of these groups are doing fabulous work. It’s necessary work. But it’s not sufficient. That’s because we are fighting deeply entrenched institutionalized attitudes that are difficult to change. 

The second step is to anticipate and counter the inevitable backlash to joyful math.

Here’s what happens when I bring joyful math into classrooms. First I beg teachers to give me time to play math games with students. I bring in games like Rush Hour, Prime Climb, or Set to class. Everyone plays and has a good time. Teachers and students alike understand that they are learning larger concepts that help them understand other aspects of mathematics.

But then everything goes back to “normal”. I’ve just shown them “fun” math. But in their minds, teachers and students wall that off as an aberrant experience, like a once-a-year field trip. It is a nice supplement, but not “real” math. 

And when it comes down to school policy and choice of textbooks, the pressure to make conventional choices is overwhelming. Only schools that operate outside of public funding have the freedom to operate differently. And even there, pressure from parents usually direct the rivers of curriculum to flow along conventional channels.

A few students, parents and teachers do have their world permanently enlarged. A few teachers do go out of their way to implement extracurricular programs like Math Kangaroo and MathCounts. But they are the exception.

How do we counter the backlash? I think there are many answers, working both inside and outside of conventional institutions. And we must try them all. Some of the strategies: create replacement curriculum, create memorable joyful mathematics events that take over whole schools, provide ongoing support to teachers and parents, offer free online meetups for kids.

My personal belief is that conventional math education is so badly broken that it cannot be incrementally repaired.

I personally do not want to engage in curriculum standard wars. Instead, I prefer the carrot over the stick. I advocate establishing an attractive alternative that shows everyone a better way, that brings them joy AND satisfies conventional expectations of what math education can do. Sesame Street enticed a generation of inner city kids to master early learning concepts, not through mandate, but through an effective, entertaining, accessible TV show. We can do the same.

Getting to the promised land will require all of us working together. That’s why I’m thrilled to see all of the joyful math groups starting collaborate and share resources. 

Let’s turn our individual ripples into an unstoppable tidal wave of joy.

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