If you asked elementary teachers what they found beautiful in mathematics, would they be able to:
describe a beautiful mathematical idea? tell an engaging story about a mathematics concept? relay a surprise or wonder at the way a problem could be solved in many ways? If you asked elementary students how they knew they were in math class, would they describe:
the excitement of learning new concepts? how they solve problems in novel and creative ways? how they all work together to cooperatively learn new concepts? how mathematics is linked and related to so many things around them? Chances are that the answer to at least some of these questions is, unfortunately, “No.” Mathematicians describe the math that they do as beautiful, or the work they do as collaborative. (Gadanidis, n.d.) This is not necessarily true when you talk to teachers and students in elementary school. Mathematics is sometimes seen as something you do, not something you create. It is set apart from other subjects, and its curriculum is further fragmentized into seemingly unrelated strands. Add to this, textbooks designed to cover curriculum expectations, and meet standards in a measurable way on standardized tests that can draw us away from a place where beauty, collaboration, and surprise are the norm rather than the exception. (Gadanidis & Hughes, 2011)
If the current practice in the mathematics classrooms in elementary schools were seen to have an aesthetic set of principles at all, what might they be? A set of procedures to find an answer? A place where right and wrong are the base words of its vocabulary? A room of endless worksheets? Would it not be a much better place if we could have mathematics classrooms where beauty and mathematical structure can co-exist? Or elegance and efficiency? Or the analytical and the creative?
What principles should we have to guide our work in the mathematics classroom? It is unrealistic to expect that elementary teachers all have enough mathematics training, let alone positive experiences with math, to be able to embrace the aesthetics of mathematics in the short term. The arts, however, do afford a wonderful opportunity to provide engagement structures that would place “affect at the centre of learning, alongside cognition.” (Lewis, 2013) The valid links between the arts and mathematics are subtle, but profound when examined, and afford us the opportunity to infuse aesthetics into the mathematics classroom.