A Mathematician’s Lament: on education

Paul Lockhart wrote an accessible read on what is wrong with math education and the popular perception of math that is reinforced in culture that has been shared on the Web in quite a few corners. It deserves a wider read: “A Mathematician’s Lament”:

The art of proof has been replaced by a rigid step-by step pattern of uninspired formal deductions. The textbook presents a set of definitions, theorems, and proofs, the teacher copies them onto the blackboard, and the students copy them into their notebooks. They are then asked to mimic them in the exercises. Those that catch on to the pattern quickly are the “good” students.

The result is that the student becomes a passive participant in the creative act. Students are making statements to fit a preexisting proof-pattern, not because they mean them. They are being trained to ape arguments, not to intend them. So not only do they have no idea what their teacher is saying, they have no idea what they themselves are saying.

Even the traditional way in which definitions are presented is a lie. In an effort to create an illusion of “clarity” before embarking on the typical cascade of propositions and theorems, a set of definitions are provided so that statements and their proofs can be made as succinct as possible. On the surface this seems fairly innocuous; why not make some abbreviations so that things can be said more economically? The problem is that definitions matter. They come from aesthetic decisions about what distinctions you as an artist consider important. And they are problem-generated. To make a definition is to highlight and call attention to a feature or structural property. Historically this comes out of working on a problem, not as a prelude to it.

The point is you don’t start with definitions, you start with problems. Nobody ever had an idea of a number being “irrational” until Pythagoras attempted to measure the diagonal of a square and discovered that it could not be represented as a fraction. Definitions make sense when a point is reached in your argument which makes the distinction necessary. To make definitions without motivation is more likely to cause confusion.


Kevin Devlin: “Lockhart’s Lament – The Sequel”

Slashdot: “A Mathematician’s Lament — an Indictment of US Math Education”

G.H. Hardy:

A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.