Find the art in maths and watch pupils (and parents) fall in love

Schools should try life on ‘marths’, says Eddie White after finding his subject in every corner of an art gallery

Eddie White

Find the art in maths and the cries of ‘boring’ will disappear

“Marths” is a word I came up with when teaching two-dimensional shape to pupils who struggle with maths. Marths: “art in maths” – good, huh? OK, it’s a bit of a mouthful, but bear with me.

Making pictures with triangles, rectangles and circles is apparently a random approach to maths, but it is not too far off the territory of my art colleagues, who advise me that the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne could reduce all pictures to cones, sheets and cylinders – the original marthematician. We now have a marths noticeboard in the school with some pupil drawings and some prints from famous geometric artistic now.

Earlier this month, I had cause to be back in my home town of Dundee. For months my wife and I have driven past the new V&A and mused. I have a cut on my chin from an accident on a water slide which once stood where the gallery is now. (Cleverness is knowing how to turn the flume mats into aerofoils, wisdom – sadly lacking on my part in this instance – is knowing how to apply physics to determine that the flume is too narrow for me to navigate with this mat-turned-aerofoil.)

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Our visit started with a coffee whilst I read the booklet I was handed and I looked at the architecture from the inside. The first thing I thought was those never-ending stairs all the way up to the top looked ripe for riding down on the very same mats I used as a teenager. Not fancying being arrested, I didn’t bother.

When I did get to the top of the stairs, though, what unexpectedly awaited me in the V&A, this epitome of artistic excellence, was a pile of maths.

The first station was about creating a three-dimensional shape from paper and tape. This was second-level maths. The next station was sequences and series: create a pattern and find the rule for it. Third -level maths. All around me, people were doing maths. On a Sunday. For fun.

But it wasn’t really maths – it was marths. They were unpicking the work and finding the joy and the excitement of the task. People love maths if you sell it to them in the correct way.

There is hope to replicate this in schools. Why don’t we create our own interactive galleries for parents’ nights? We are used to offering parents tea and coffees and a few thousand calories from cakes to make the night flow more. Could we build our coffee area into an interactive marths gallery? The younger siblings, the parents and everyone in the school community could get lost in a maths puzzle. All we need to implement this would be a few of our pupils – maybe the Advanced Higher kids who have a passion for maths – who can demonstrate the work, who can time the parents in speed trials.

What would our marths gallery contain? The best 3D shape from an A4 sheet? The prettiest pattern, with matching rule, the fastest times-table grid, the paper aeroplane which flies the farthest, highest or slowest, the best Cézanne-inspired picture, one of those Twitter frames for sharing our love of geekiness. Who knows, maybe we will find parents will love this concept so much they will stop telling us that they hated maths?

Damn it, did an art gallery make me go away and think artistically? I’m almost inclined to celebrate by going back to the V&A and sliding down those steps after all.

Eddie White is a maths teacher in Scotland

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Eddie White

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