Zero is Beautiful: Teaching Mathematics as if People Mattered

Forthcoming in Home Education Magazine, November-December 2014


Can you imagine the time before the discovery of zero? My husband and I got a glimpse of this when we witnessed the discovery of zero, not on the world-historical scale, but by our two-year-old daughter.

It was not an easy road. Counting had come uneventfully, but when numbers became numerals and the number 10 appeared on the page not with its own symbol, but with a 1 and 0, suddenly everything had changed. Till that moment, in her world it was still possible to have a system of enumeration like the one used by Ireneo Funes in Borges’ story, “Funes the Memorius.” Funes gives every number its own unique name. He has “an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers” and no use for the concept of place value.

When our daughter saw that the numeral 10 comprised a 1 and a 0 she flung herself upon a chair and cried. Read the rest of this entry »

One real teacher

Excerpts from the essays of Paul Lockhart
Paul Lockhart teaches mathematics at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York.

MC Escher, 1948

MC Escher, 1948

From letter to Keith Devlin, Mathematical Association of America

On teaching mathematics to young children:
“I want them to understand that there is a playground in their minds and that that is where mathematics happens.”

From Lockhart’s Lament, Mathematical Association of America

Mathematics is an Art

… if the world had to be divided into the “poetic dreamers” and the “rational thinkers” most people would place mathematicians in the latter category.

Nevertheless, the fact is that there is nothing as dreamy and poetic, nothing as radical, subversive, and psychedelic, as mathematics. Read the rest of this entry »