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Math is Just Another Word for Curiosity

Nov 1, 2017

By Justin Smith, Instructor

 

 

When humans are born, we think exactly the same way as mathematicians. We’re curious, we’re overwhelmed, and we seek to understand. Life is just a process of discovery as we try to explore the world we find ourselves in and make sense of this overload of information. The toys we play with are experiments. This shape of block fits into this shape of hole. This toy spins, but this one doesn’t. What makes something spin? This is a button. Buttons can be pressed. What happens when these different buttons are pressed?

We don’t think of these explorations as math, but they are. We have a question, and then we seek to find an answer or an explanation. Before we even speak words, we speak the language of math. We figure out the concepts of “more” and “less,” we gain a general understanding of gravity and physics, we observe shapes and witness mysteries. Mathematicians often operate similarly. They seek out patterns in the world and then look for explanations. They try to find rules, or formulas and equations, to explain the way the world around us actually works. They crunch numbers and utilize massive amounts of data to calculate patterns about people and the way that we live our lives.

Somewhere throughout the process of learning, we lose our curiosity. And around the same time, many people lose interest in math. Schools tell us everything we’re “supposed” to know, and we stop thinking for ourselves about what else there might be to learn. Part of this is because some kids don’t like school. It isn’t always fun. There’s work to do, there’s homework, social stressors, concepts that advance and seem endless in their depth, and more subjects than any one person could be interested in. The more information school throws at us, the less likely we are to go home and continue asking questions. “I’ve already learned for 8 hours today, I’m not ready to learn anything more!” You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t feel that way. As a kid, I always enjoyed school, but I definitely didn’t want to keep learning when I got home. I wanted to play with my friends and watch movies. I learned everything I needed to on a given day, and that’s when I’d call it quits.

Math teaches people to remain curious. Math does what no other subject can completely do: It provides the answers. There are rules in math that always work. They will always be true. It doesn’t matter where you are or where you go, the math stays the same. How do we know it works everywhere? Because mathematicians are inherently curious people. When a new rule is introduced, they challenge it. They wrack their brains searching for counter-examples and ways to “break” the rule. They invent new types of Geometry for worlds that aren’t 3-dimensional, just to see if the rule would hold true in an alternate reality. And then, they seek to prove the math. When they’ve failed to disprove a rule, they seek out an entirely new process and attempt to show that their rule or mathematical law is always true, without fail. These proofs then become readily available online and in textbooks.

If they can’t do it… they seek more answers. Math is about looking at the world and asking, “why?” Why does adding a negative number to a positive number make the positive number smaller? Shouldn’t adding always make things larger? Or, why do different-shaped objects fall to the earth at the same speed? When there are exceptions, like feathers, why do they not follow the same rules as bowling balls and dolls? The only reason we know the answers to these questions is because someone, hundreds or even thousands of years ago, had the same questions. And they put in research and work and figured out the answers. Most of those questions have evolved into modern mathematics and science.

There are still a lot of things we don’t know. Mathematicians have fiercely heated debates today about different forms of geometry, or what the definition of an infinite set should be, and why. They seek to find ways to make the world make sense. And that’s why we need more people to be interested in learning and doing math. Because it isn’t only true in the field of mathematics, it’s true everywhere. There is so much that we don’t know about the world, and about each other, and about the universe itself. Math alone doesn’t have all of the answers, but without math, we wouldn’t have any answers at all.

When kids write off math as being “too hard” or “not interesting,” they’re limiting their potential. They unknowingly close their minds to new patterns of thinking, new abilities to solve problems, and infinite curiosities. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it until it becomes an immutable truth: Everyone is capable of learning and understanding math. I’ve never met a person who couldn’t explain to me what “half” means. That’s math. It may be a beginning stage, but it opens the door to so much more. Once you understand that one piece of chocolate can be broken into two equal parts, you also realize it could be broken into more than two equal parts. Or into 2 unequal parts. The process of learning one mathematical concept opens the floodgates to more. The same is true of life.

When we learn math, we become more curious. When we remain curious, we enter the world with a desire and ability to learn. When we enter the world with a desire to learn, we ask questions, and then we gain understanding. Math is truly the first building block on the road to a lifetime of learning and understanding, growth and change, and ultimately, happiness and fulfillment.

 

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