‘You don’t need to make math interesting – it’s already more interesting than we can handle!’ – Paul Lockhart, A Mathematician’s Lament
Covenant enjoyed a visit from Ravi Jain, co-author of The Liberal Arts Tradition, on Friday, 9/23. Ravi led a mathematics workshop for our faculty in the morning followed by a talk to our upper schoolers in the afternoon about how learning science flows from wonder and leads to worship.
Over the last decade, Jain and his colleagues at the Geneva School in Orlando, FL have sought to recover an approach to teaching math and science that more fully embodies the classical tradition. Science should be taught in a way that corresponds to the native curiosity of students, giving students eyes to observe the beauty, complexity, and harmony of the created world. Placing scientific discoveries in their historical context so that students experience the pathos of scientific discovery will lead students to a greater appreciation for the marvelous achievements of science.
With regard to math, Jain drew our attention critics such as Morris Kline and Paul Lockhart who contend that modern methods of math instruction serve to dull the creativity of students. In his Mathematician’s Lament, Paul Lockhart, says that “mathematics is the music of reason. To do mathematics is to engage in an act of discovery and conjecture, intuition and inspiration . . . to be frustrated as an artist; to be awed and overwhelmed by an almost painful beauty…” Unfortunately, “this rich and fascinating adventure of the imagination has been reduced to a sterile set of ‘facts’ to be memorized and procedures to be followed.” Jain recognizes the importance of technique, but agrees with Lockhart that the key is to teach technique in the context of discovery. “Give your students a good problem, let them struggle and get frustrated. See what they come up with . Wait until they are dying for an idea, then give them some technique. But not too much.”
By teaching in this way, Ravi and his colleagues have seen more and more students become lovers of math, seeing it not just as a series of techniques or a body of content, but as an exciting path of discovery and awe. At Covenant, we want to awaken desire for beauty and truth in the hearts and minds of our students (and ourselves!) Learning math is a wonderful avenue for this cultivation of our humanity because mathematics is built on the beauty, symmetry, and harmony of the world God made. In all of this, classical Christian education is seeking to attend to the humanity of our students. As Stratford Caldecott wrote in his wonderful essay, Beauty for Truth’s Sake, the best way to teach students is “by first awakening the poetic imagination.” After all, we are educating image bearers of a loving and majestic God, students who are naturally curious and who seek answers that satisfy their soul rather than simply the “right answer” for the test so they can “move on” to the next subject
We are excited to continue a conversation with Ravi Jain this year as we seek to refine our teaching methods to more and more lead students to a love for learning to the glory of God.