Devlin's Angle

March 2008

Lockhart's Lament

This month's column is devoted to an article called A Mathematician's Lament, written by Paul Lockhart in 2002. Paul is a mathematics teacher at Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn, New York. His article has been circulating through parts of the mathematics and math ed communities ever since, but he never published it. I came across it by accident a few months ago, and decided at once I wanted to give it wider exposure. I contacted Paul, and he agreed to have me publish his "lament" on MAA Online. It is, quite frankly, one of the best critiques of current K-12 mathematics education I have ever seen. Written by a first-class research mathematician who elected to devote his teaching career to K-!2 education.

Paul became interested in mathematics when he was about 14 (outside of the school math class, he points out) and read voraciously, becoming especially interested in analytic number theory. He dropped out of college after one semester to devote himself to math, supporting himself by working as a computer programmer and as an elementary school teacher. Eventually he started working with Ernst Strauss at UCLA, and the two published a few papers together. Strauss introduced him to Paul Erdos, and they somehow arranged it so that he became a graduate student there. He ended up getting a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1990, and went on to be a fellow at MSRI and an assistant professor at Brown. He also taught at UC Santa Cruz. His main research interests were, and are, automorphic forms and Diophantine geometry.

After several years teaching university mathematics, Paul eventually tired of it and decided he wanted to get back to teaching children. He secured a position at Saint Ann's School, where he says "I have happily been subversively teaching mathematics (the real thing) since 2000."

He teaches all grade levels at Saint Ann's (K-12), and says he is especially interested in bringing a mathematician's point of view to very young children. "I want them to understand that there is a playground in their minds and that that is where mathematics happens. So far I have met with tremendous enthusiasm among the parents and kids, less so among the mid-level administrators," he wrote in an email to me. Now where have I heard that kind of thing before? But enough of my words. Read Paul's dynamite essay. It's a 25-page PDF file.

Lockhart's Lament

Devlin's Angle is updated at the beginning of each month.
Mathematician Keith Devlin (email: [email protected]) is the Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University and The Math Guy on NPR's Weekend Edition. Devlin's most recent book, Solving Crimes with Mathematics: THE NUMBERS BEHIND NUMB3RS, is the companion book to the hit television crime series NUMB3RS, and is co-written with Professor Gary Lorden of Caltech, the lead mathematics adviser on the series. It was published in September by Plume.