What is Maths about?
This is an activity that can be used as a follow-up to the “Personal journey” activity. With a specialist group it can be used to introduce a session on attitudes to Mathematics. The purpose of the activity is to help people think about their internal models of Mathematics as a discipline and hear a range of very different evaluations of the subject.
Introducing the activity
If you ask the typical person in the street the question “what is Mathematics?” or “what Mathematics about?” you are likely to get a very broad range of answers.
Some of the answers may be naive; other may take the form of a judgement of some kind. Some answers may be more sophisticated.
The machine and the zoo
Two professors of Mathematics Education at the University of Warwick used to argue about the answer to that question. One of them, David, insisted that Mathematics was a system – a kind of intellectual machine whose parts all fit together neatly and whose workings one had to get to understand. The other, Rolf, saw Mathematics as a kind of zoo with lots of different animals. Some of the animals are familiar, others are unfamiliar and others still are yet to be discovered. Gradually, as we visit the zoo more often we begin to find similarities and differences
What about you?
- How do you react to the question “What is mathematics about”?
- What is your immediate reaction?
- What happens if you think about it for a while?
- Take some time now to think about it – say five minutes or so. Jot down any thoughts that emerge.
- Now share your thoughts with the other people in your small group.
Hopefully, there will have been a very wide range of different things said about the nature and character of Mathematics. Feedback can be quite informal, asking groups to give particular example of the kinds of things that were said. A more formal approach would involve writing up brief words of phrases to summarise the examples given from each group. This could then be followed up by an attempt to categorise the answers into broad types.
The key outcome of the activity is for people to hear a wide range of descriptions of Mathematics. It would be ideal if this generated some heated discussion and disagreements. In particular, there may well be things said that are just not appropriate or are even technically incorrect descriptions of Mathematics and these would be very useful to discuss – but without causing embarrassment to individuals in the session.