The Arts students’ maths brain

Yesterday I talked about one of the common responses to people finding out I am a mathematician/maths teacher, that of saying, “I’m not a maths person.” The other common response I get is, “I don’t have a maths brain.” (John Rowe mentioned this in his comment on the previous post.)

This is how I reacted last time someone said this to me:

It may not have been the best response, but I stand by the sentiment. I strongly believe there is no such thing as a maths brain. Or at least, that all brains are maths brains. I believe all human brains are wired in such a way to be able to learn and do maths, not least because I observe babies engaging in mathematical thought long before they can talk, so that capacity is there in all of us from the beginning. But more than this, I believe that the skills that I use to be good at maths are the same skills that other people use to do other things that they wouldn’t call maths.

I have one specific story to tell about how I helped an Arts student to believe that maybe she did have a maths brain after all.

Earlier this semester (a few months ago now), several student services were invited to an orientation event for Arts students, to make sure they knew about what was available for them. So I went along with a Writing Centre staff member to do our usual joint activity of Numbers and Letters.

A student came along to see what we were doing and happily engaged with the Letters game. She then glanced over at the Numbers game and I asked if she’d like to join in. With a rather green look on her face she said, “I don’t have a maths brain!”

I said, “I’m not sure I believe there’s such a thing as a maths brain.” Then I asked her what she was studying, and she revealed it was mainly poetry. “That’s really cool!” I said. “I reckon the skills you use to analyse and create poetry are tha same ones I use to do maths. Did you want to try a different sort of activity?” She graciously agreed and so I wrote this haiku on the board:

Word points, letter lines:
Fur ute you oft try fey roe.
My geometry.

“What do you notice?” I asked.
“It really is a haiku. And there’s a lot of really interesting words in that middle line.”
“Yeah I know right? I particularly like the concept of fey roe. What else do you notice about the words in that middle line?”
“Well, they’ve all got three letters…”

Following this was a most wonderful conversation about the letters they start with and end with, and which letters appear and how many times, scribbling notes on the board. This all culminated in the beautiful moment where the student realised the symmetrical nature of the words and the letters here and made an “oh!” of satisfaction.

“That was cool,” she said, after declaring she had to go. “Maybe I have a maths brain after all.”

This was one of the greatest moments of my entire teaching career, right then.

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