- Yan, how do you manage to make kids fascinated with maths? Do you have some magic secret?
- The magic is this: during my maths lessons, the children are actually doing maths. This is not a tautology. There is a famous treatise by Paul Lockhart, A Mathematician's Lament, in which he compares the teaching of mathematics at school with music lessons where the students never get to touch an instrument and rarely even hear a melody. These music lessons consist in writing down notes and learning musical terms by heart. Ordinary school maths works like that: children rarely get to experience the joy of solving simple problems. I don’t think you can teach maths this way. You can only really understand concepts and work with them if you are involved in developing them, or if you come to realize that you need them. If you’re simply given a set of rules, you won’t be able to use them well; they are dead weight.
It’s not my magic secret, either; there is an old tradition of teaching maths by providing interesting puzzles and helping solve them. The teacher’s skill consists in coming up with interesting challenges in the most helpful order. Solving mathematical puzzles will teach the child how to do maths – and bring them pure joy.
- So it's about problem-solving? But surely you can’t do maths without the correct terms, axioms, theorems?
- Right. But no mathematical term or theorem was ever handed down from the skies. All these things arose naturally because they provided answers to important questions – to interesting questions, if you know how to ask. So we’ll be recreating that process by asking the right questions.
- This way of teaching maths is often used at maths camps or specialized maths schools, but rarely in normal school practice. Do you have any idea why?
- Perhaps because many teachers are simply afraid to try to it. Perhaps teachers who had no luck with their own school experiences don’t trust the children with so much creative freedom. They think that kids should get all the basics explained before they can start working something out for themselves. In reality, though, 10-14-year-olds can grow deeply fascinated by mathematical puzzles. They can learn the basics for themselves, by doing the maths.
- At our school, part of the teaching takes place online, and another at learning camps. Does this constrain you in your method?
- Actually, it suits my method quite well. I need the camps to create the human relationship, a natural contact with the children – and it’s also important that they develop relationships among themselves. Once this basis is established, it doesn’t really matter if we proceed to solve puzzles online or offline.
- How about teaching the sciences?
- For me, teaching the sciences means showing the children how knowledge can be gleaned from the world around them, how connections can be discovered. Science begins with an interest in the interconnectedness of all things, with the belief that we can understand the world. You can’t teach science by making kids learn things by heart. They need to learn how to create models of phenomena. Every child is surrounded by a world that can be observed, studied, examined. You don’t necessarily need a lab to do that. At the learning camps, we do have a lab, and it’s quite useful, but the heart of the matter lies not in super-expensive equipment but in teaching how to see things. Anyone can buy an oscilloscope, but it does take some teaching talent to help your pupils discover what's fascinating in, say, water dripping from a tap. Looking at the world with curiosity means seeing immense beauty in it – artistic, visual, tactile; and it also means discovering this world with our sixth sense: the brain.
- What is the most important science to you? Is it physics?
- Not really; chemistry, biology, ecology, astronomy – they all matter. It makes no sense to separate them when teaching 10-12-year-olds. Actually, keeping them neatly apart would be harmful. The sciences arose together, they are naturally interconnected. In the upper grades, it might be better to draw some lines and specialize – but for younger kids especially, finding the interconnections between different fields is the greatest fun. And this doesn’t only concern the sciences. There are connections with the humanities, as well. You can’t really teach astronomy without getting into history and mythology – and not only Greek at that, but also Egyptian, Arabic. Some kid will ask: “Okay, so we’ve got constellations that are named after Greek mythological heroes. But why do so many stars have Arab names?” Then I could tell them about the way ancient knowledge reached the West via the Muslim world. And if we compare our tradition of constellation-naming with the Chinese one, we land smack in a discussion of cultural diversity, of worldviews. At the Le Sallay Academy, the cooperation between the subjects will be very close.
- How are you going to deal with the fact that your pupils come from different countries? Their basic knowledge will differ, as school programmes do…
- First of all, there will be different groups. But each task, too, will involve different possible levels of depth, so that the best-prepared children never get bored, and those who haven't had any mathematical training before won’t suffer.
- You say “prepared” and “unprepared”, not “good at maths” and “bad at maths”: is this for a reason?
- Absolutely. I've never ever seen a child who couldn’t get fascinated by some aspect of maths. Those who find it boring have not yet been taught otherwise.
- But surely there are children who have no talent for maths whatsoever!
- Let me answer with a question: are there people who don’t like art in any form at all? No music, no books, no paintings, no films, no dancing…? This seems like an extremely rare condition. Maths is a very wide field; a way of working with ideas. Arguably, it’s an art form without a medium: we don’t use clay or paint; we use the method I mentioned at the start. The only way to master an art or science is to keep trying. To keep painting, playing, dancing, solving puzzles.
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