The Hidden Secret to Understanding the World

In my 4th grade gifted and talented class, the students study masterpieces.  In addition to masterpieces of visual art, we talk about literary, musical, and even mathematical masterpieces.  When I saw the title for Roger Antonsen’s TED Talk, “Math is the Hidden Secret to Understanding the World,” I thought it might fit in well to the mathematical masterpiece section.  Little did I expect that it would tie everything together that we had discussed all year.

I should mention that this year’s 4th grade class has some very passionate mathematicians in it.  They worship Pi, see Fibonacci in everything, and sit on the edge of their seats whenever I mention that a math activity is imminent.  But I wasn’t sure they would find Antonsen’s talk as revolutionary as I do.  I was willing to overlook the mathematical examples that were over my head in exchange for appreciating the bigger picture, but would they?

Fortunately, Antonsen’s visualizations managed to maintain their focus, and even their awe at some point, as he gradually brought his audience around to the idea that mathematical equations and representations are actually different perspectives (a few heads raised a bit whenever he said this word, as we regularly talk about multiple perspectives).  The “a-ha” moment, however, was when Antonsen said this, “So let’s now take a step back — and that’s actually a metaphor, stepping back — and have a look at what we’re doing. I’m playing around with metaphors. I’m playing around with perspectives and analogies. I’m telling one story in different ways. I’m telling stories. I’m making a narrative; I’m making several narratives. And I think all of these things make understanding possible. I think this actually is the essence of understanding something. I truly believe this.”

There were audible exclamations in my class when the word, “metaphor,” was used.  We started the year by learning about figurative language.  And the concentration in 4th grade in Texas is on Writing as it is tested at this level for the first time.  So, looking at math as a way to tell stories and show different perspectives really captured the attention of my students.

I often tell my students about my childhood struggles with math, how I was often congratulated on my writing skills but made holes in my math assignments due to all of the erasures.  It wasn’t until high school that I had a few great teachers who taught me to love math and helped me to see that my only obstacle had been my own fear of the subject.

If I had seen Antonsen’s TED Talk when I was in 4th grade, things could have been different for me far sooner.  Instead of feeling like math divides people into those who can and those who can’t, I might have realized that math is actually the language that brings us all together.