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Lockhart’s Lament

A few days ago during #mathscpdchat  someone tweeted a link entitled “Lockhart’s Lament”, and an attached comment saying that Lockhart thought that the current state of maths education was akin to drilling pupils on music scales.

I duly followed the link, and discovered a 25 page essay by Paul Lockhart entitled “A Mathematicians Lament”. Paul Lockhart is a maths teacher in the USA who has previously had a successful career as a research mathematician, and as the title suggests he is not happy about the way maths is taught in the USA.

The essay itself is amazing and provides a lot of food for thought around both the mathematics curriculum and mathematical pedagogy. I would certainly advocate anyone with an interest in maths or teaching spends a bit of time reading it.

While reading it I found that there is a whole lot of similarities between maths teaching here in the UK and over the Atlantic in the US, although I did notice some differences too. I also noticed a real similarity between many of the things Paul was saying and the way I feel about maths.

We clearly share a live and a passion for the subject; share the feeling that school pupils should be allowed to develop and explore the subject in a manner that allows them to build a love for the subject and feel that there are some real errors in our curriculum.

Lockhart talks about the history and development of maths, and how this can enhance ones love of the subject. This is something I agree wholeheartedly with, and that is why I include these things in my lessons. I love to discuss the mathematicians behind the mathematics and I find that pupils do too. He also mentions a feeling that the curriculum is two constrained and doesn’t leave room for much actual mathematics, reasoning or conjecture. I think (in the UK at least) that these things can be included into lessons with the current curriculum if teachers have a broad enough and deep enough knowledge of the subject. I certainly find these opportunities. This week my “low set” year 8 class were told to discuss which game gave more chance of winning, “Rock Paper Scissors ” or “Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock“, and was please that four tables independently came up with “Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock, because whatever you throw there is less chance of getting a draw, so more chance of winning or losing.” it only took a few minutes too. They then used Sample Spaces to investigate the theoretical probabilities, and played a few games of it!

There are a few issues I intend to explore further and I will no doubt be referring back to “Lockhart’s Lament” again.

Further reading

The essay itself was published with an intro by Keith Devlin here

There is also a series of responses from Keith’s readers and then an answer from Paul here

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