Thursday 26 January 2017

Mathematics Dreaming - From Rational to Real : On Curiosity and Wonderment

Mathematics Dreaming - From Rational to Real : On Curiosity and Wonderment

On Curiosity and Wonderment

Australian of the Year awards: Biomolecular scientist Alan Mackay-Sim receives 2017 honour.

So here we are again, the beginning of another school year in Australia.  A brand-new set of students, each with their own strengths, attitudes, and degrees of self-confidence towards learning mathematics.

As a high school Mathematics teacher, have renewed my Mathematics teaching goals this year, and they are not about grades, achievement standards, or personal accountability.  Those are expected elements of my role as a teacher.  My personal goals for teaching mathematics are directed at engaging my learners:

Goal 1:  to love mathematics
Goal 2:  to challenge themselves
Goal 3:  to embrace curiosity and wonderment when exploring maths

Why these goals?  I want maths to come alive for my students as it does for me.  And I want to help my students to unlock their potential for learning in the same way that our Australian of the Year, Alan Mackay-Sim did.

Australian of the Year 2017 used his curiosity and wonderment about the biology of the nose and sense of smell to assist with the first successful restoration of mobility in a quadriplegic man in 2014.  Imagine that….an expert on noses helps a man to walk again.  Now that is a powerful endorsement for teaching students to engage with curiosity and wonderment.

Curiosity and Wonderment is nothing new.  It is embedded in Art Costa’s ‘Habits of Mind’ which have been around for a long time.  As maths teachers, however, I think it is time to re-embrace the ‘Habits of Mind’ as intentional ‘learning outcomes’ within our lessons.

During my years of teaching, I have found that Curiosity and Wonderment needs to be to explicitly ‘re-taught’ to most of my students.  By reconnecting students with their innate senses of curiosity and wonderment they will be able to draw on these to play, explore and find solutions such as the ‘Stem Cell Breakthrough’ achieved by our Australian of the Year, 2017, Alan Mackay-Sim.

How do we teach curiosity and wonderment?   It is nothing new. The first step is to include as a learning outcome for the lesson something such as the following:

  • ·      In this lesson, students will learn to develop their curiosity by asking questions….to challenge what they believe that they know…

  • ·      In this lesson, students will develop their wonderment and awe by ‘changing the conditions’ for a problem and then having fun figuring it out.

Maths teachers have always had techniques to implement ‘Curiosity and Wonderment’ in the classroom.  Unfortunately, we kind of kill it by giving it a more maths sounding name:  the dreaded 


Simple Solution:  Change the lexicon. 

Curiosity and Wonderment are the ‘creative and natural’ words for something we strive to do all the time in Mathematics……
…..Conjecture and Proof.

So next time you plan to ‘introduce an investigation’ into your lesson, I challenge you to throw caution to the wind, and just tell the students that in today’s lesson we are going to ‘play'.  The play needs of course to have a relevant purpose – one connected to the topic of a lesson.  And, the ‘language of curiosity and wonderment’ must be modelled by the teacher…..

                        …..I wonder what would happen if we increased the weight of……
                        ….What if we tried to make it …..
                        ….I wonder if we can find a pattern that will help us to predict….
                        ….I am curious to know if it would work with hexagons as well as pentagons…

Maybe, by just tweaking the language that we use when inspiring our students to engage with mathematics, we can encourage more of them to join us in our wonderful world of Mathematics.