Does Math Have a Context?

Basic MathThroughout my engineering days as well as professional life, I always liked math. It has a certain cleanliness to it that I could not find elsewhere. Of course there came a point where it took more effort than I intended to put in to understand the intricacies. However, everything I learnt before that is still close to my heart.

So, when I decided to indulge in a newfound passion to create masterpieces for the mobile world, I naturally turned to math. The idea was to create something that would help kids understand, enjoy and excel at basic mathematics. The more I researched in this field, the more confused I got.

I realized that our learning process for different subjects is different. We learn the best when we learn within a context. Language is taught to children using action words which they can easily identify with. Right up to our learning in professional lives, our learning all comes with context. However, math is still taught in a very abstract way.

We are taught that 2+2=4. This is a “fact”. We are taught the process of solving this problem and how to extend it to other problems. However, there is no context. There is no storification. No wonder that children who do not immediately identify the beauty do not really like the subject even if they are good at it. A food for thought article I read from PBS prompted me to write this.

Can anything be done about this? Can math be storified? Can we create a context around basic math to stoke the imagination of children? In fact, does math have a context?

What do the 9-to-whatevers think?

Teaching Creativity…

Oxymoron, right?  Well, let’s see.

Today, creativity, innovation and the ilk are corporate buzzwords.  Every manager is looking to increase these to improve product appeal and to reduce costs.  The debate is over how.

Can we increase these competencies in our teams today or do we need structural changes to happen.  The answer may depend upon what the organization’s views on these skills are.

One point which elicits agreement is that there are already instances of creativity and innovation in most teams.  The incentive structures and organization around these efforts, in most cases, is not sufficient to tap into these instances and derive the desired benefit or sustainability.  Further, some of the organizational frameworks actively discourage out-of-the-box thinking which is a severe limitation towards these competencies.  Tapping into the existing instances is necessary, but probably not sufficient for the needs of the organization.

Solution?  A culture change is necessary.  The people need to believe that the creative and innovative competency is something that is not only rewarded, but is expected.  However, the larger question is can they deliver?  Is this competency static or is something that can be built up in the individual and the team?  That is where I see disagreement.

One argument is that you cannot teach people to be creative.  That is an inherent part of ones nature and cannot be infused.  To really be able to create these competencies in an organization, you need to acquire it externally.  Evidence the increase in evaluation of creativity and innovation ability during the interview process!

My view is different.  I believe that these competencies can be encouraged, nurtured and taught.  These competencies revolve around a state of mind where people think outside of the standard script.  This can be encouraged if there is sufficient latitude for bringing up new ideas and sufficient allowances for failure.  The expectations also have to be realistic.  We probably will not get a Mona Lisa, but we can definitely do better than draw stick figures.

There are also some reasons that internal growth of these competencies is preferred over external infusion.  The subject matter experts of the organization, especially a knowledge organization, are the key drivers.  Without this expertise, creativity and innovation will mean little.  You cannot create a masterpiece painting without knowing how to paint.  Similarly, you cannot create a concept car without understanding cars.  If you know the current product range inside out, the concept product will be much closer to your organizations ability to deliver – faster time to market and better quality!

Fact of the matter is that these competencies cannot be “taught” in the sense that there is no roadmap or textbook which can be followed blindly.  The acquiring of these competencies is riddled with experimentation and hitting brick walls.  But, if teaching is limited to imparting skills which can be learnt only with a roadmap, our whole education system is in trouble!

Wait a minute!  Isn’t that what is already happening???  Aaagghh…