Over the last year and a half or so, I’ve taken a deep dive into the world of mathematical art. My current explorations include geometry and beads.
What’s equally interesting about these hobbies is that I’ve learned a great deal about they way we learn new things. And specifically, it drives me to think extensively about the way we teach and learn mathematics.
Something important I’ve discovered: I like to start a project with a procedure. Although I will avoid turning to a YouTube video if I can (probably because of residual trauma from Khan Academy), I like to be given clear directions, steps and models from beginning to end. It gives me comfort to know what I’m getting into but also know what the finished product should look like. But in order to be successful, I need to then work to understand the procedures conceptually.
There is an elusive stitch that beaders struggle with called the Cubic Right Angle Weave. I was obviously attracted to it because of its mathematical name but also because it’s used for some beautiful designs (and it’s difficult). Yesterday, I loaded up a YouTube video and dove into the beads. This 20 minute video took me 7 hours. SEVEN HOURS. But again, I needed to conceptually understand what was going on with this stitch. I needed to visualize where the next set of beads would go to make these connected cubes.
I see such a parallel to the purpose of school mathematics and the way it’s taught. I learned the cubic right angle weave so that I could use the stitch in a bracelet I’m making for my mom to for her birthday. I’m going to use it as well as a number of other stitches that will work together to create what I’ve envisioned. I most certainly did not learn this complicated stitch so that I could continue to practice strings of different types and sizes of beads – glass beads, stone beads, crystal beads, beads with fractions, and beads with a coefficient on x squared. My goal was instead to have a usable end product and practice the stitch in the process. When we isolate skills in mathematics, we are teaching kids over and over that their knowledge of a process is only useful in problems with a similar structure. Knowing how to solve a quadratic equation is a lot less useful if all we are ever doing is solving increasingly complex quadratic equations. Just ask an adult how many times since high school they have needed to rely on their knowledge of the quadratic formula to solve a problem.
I’m grateful to be learning so much about my learning with my extra free time. I hope to research more about these learning parallels through my doctorate program. However, my next steps are to complete my mom’s bracelet. I can’t wait to give it to her. It’s going to be beautiful.