How storytelling connects mathematics to nature

|2 min read

Editor’s Note:

This is an updated version of a blog post published on July 21, 2019

From the rings of Saturn to the seeds of a sunflower, mathematical patterns show up all over the natural world. Connecting maths to nature and creating stories are some of the best ways to make it accessible.

All children have the potential to acquire lifelong learning skills when you incorporate real-world mathematics into your teaching practice.

Connecting maths to nature helps children find patterns, learn foundational properties and build mathematical fluency. We asked Dame Celia Hoyles and Marcus DuSautoy their thoughts on learning mathematics this way.

Why maths learning should go beyond knowing procedures

From Dame Celia Hoyles:
I’m sure if you asked mathematicians what they think maths learning is about — it’s not really about all the procedures, they have to know that. It’s about looking at symmetries, and patterns, and beauty, and enjoyment. We ought to have a bit of that in maths learning.

How to teach the stories of mathematics

From Marcus du Sautoy:
I think very often the way we teach mathematics is great for the geeks and nerds, but sometimes you need other stories to bring in people who perhaps don’t find mathematics immediately accessible.

There are different ways to think about mathematics. It’s not just through numbers, it’s through geometry, it’s through patterns, it’s about different ways of thinking. That’s what mathematics is for, it’s for telling these stories and these discoveries that we’ve made over the centuries.

Just limiting students to learning about the grammar and the language, of course they’re going to give up and say, why do I need to know this?

We need to tell them the stories you can tell with this language.

How to make maths connections through nature stories

From Marcus du Sautoy:
I think connections is the key word here. You want to have stories that connect to nature.

Kids love nature. They can see that nature has a lot of mathematics in it when you ask them to stop and observe the natural work, and when you ask them questions like:

Honeycomb’s are hexagons, why is that?
Cicadas use prime numbers, how are they doing that?

So I think, using nature, using music, using a bit of theater, playing some of these stories out.

I think there are many stories that we can introduce at really, quite an early stage, which will help just open people’s minds to what maths could be.