Maths is seen as a dry subject with a rigid structure: useful, important, but not much fun. Primary school maths, in particular, tends to be presented technically rather than creatively. But maths is a creative subject in its own right and can be taught just as playfully as the arts.
Maths is the language we use to navigate our physical environment in a scientific way. At its core, it is storytelling.
The arts can help to tell these stories. Exploring mathematical ideas through theatre, music and movement gives children a better chance of navigating the abstract side of the subject – because they are able to visualise, play and make connections.
Play is related to experimentation; a strong element of maths and science. From birth, we’re programmed to play, explore and spot patterns useful for our survival. So much knowledge is discovered through play because it also allows us to make mistakes, go down blind alleys and see patterns at work. Where would we be if our scientists and great innovators were not playful, creative types?
So how does this work in practice?
One of my favourite mathematical stories – a real-life example from nature – is about the cicadas of North America. One type appears only every 17 years and another every 13, but none at 12, 14, 15, 16 or 18 years. They have evolved prime-number life cycles. Why? In doing so, they are less likely to come across predators that also appear periodically in the forest.
Use drama to bring this story to life in the classroom by getting the children to play the cicadas or the predator. Go through a period of 100 years with the cicadas appearing every nine years and the predator every six years. You will find that they coincide every 18 years. Each time they meet, the predator gets to choose one of the cicadas to eat.
Then change the cycle so that the predators are appearing every six years and the cicadas every seven. They don’t coincide until year 42.
Through this game, children are exploring a real scientific -example. It’s basic maths – nothing beyond the multiplication table – but because it’s a good story, it stays in the memory.
It is important to introduce maths in this creative way at primary school and not wait until secondary because it makes the subject more real and tangible. If children can understand why they are doing something, it gives them the inspiration to carry on the hard work.
You can get help from specialists such as Artis, an organisation that empowers children by integrating the performing arts into classroom topics and strengthening learning and connections between areas of the curriculum.
Maths hides behind many topics across the curriculum but it tends to be compartmentalised as “numeracy hour”. Children move from one subject to another without realising they are all intimately connected. But if you can make interesting connections between subjects, it will help on both sides. Maths is the perfect bridge between science and creativity, linking the many ways of seeing the world.
If I was going to rewrite the curriculum I would say let’s forget about maths being useful all the time and just tell great stories. The arts are the perfect vehicle to do so.
Marcus du Sautoy is a professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford and succeeded Richard Dawkins to the Simonyi Professorship Chair for the Public Understanding of Science in 2008.
Find more information on Artis here