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by Robert Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan

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256 pages7 hours

**“In this sparkling narrative, mathematics is indeed set free.” -Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain**

In classrooms around the world, Robert and Ellen Kaplan's pioneering Math Circle program, begun at Harvard, has introduced students ages six to sixty to the pleasures of mathematics, exploring topics that range from Roman numerals to quantum mechanics.

In Out of the Labyrinth, the Kaplans reveal the secrets of their highly successful approach, which embraces the exhilarating joy of math's “accessible mysteries.” Stocked with puzzles, colorful anecdotes, and insights from the authors' own teaching experience, Out of the Labyrinth is both an engaging and practical guide for parents and educators, and a treasure chest of mathematical discoveries. For any reader who has felt the excitement of mathematical discovery-or tried to convey it to someone else-this volume will be a delightful and valued companion.

Publisher: Bloomsbury PublishingReleased: Feb 4, 2014ISBN: 9781608198894Format: book

*To all our students and colleagues of The Math Circle *

**Chapter One: A Glimpse Inside **

**Chapter Two: Cod Liver Oil **

**Chapter Three: The Myth of Talent **

**Chapter Four: Making Your Hats **

**1. Holding On **

**Stubbornness **

**Orneriness **

**A High Threshold of Frustration **

**The Jump-Cut Mind **

**Putting On Hold **

**2. Taking Apart **

**Method vs. Approach **

**Atomizing **

**Attention Without Tension **

**Precision **

**Rotating the Diamond **

**Breaking Apart **

**Pursuing the Possible **

**3. Putting Together **

**Play **

**Stubbornness Revisited **

**The Riddle of the Pygmy Shrew **

**Analogy **

**Holding Hypotheses Like Birds **

**Experimental Fervor **

**The Architectural Instinct **

**The Conductor **

**Chapter Five: The Great Barrier Reef **

**Language: Symbols **

**Language: Equations **

**Language: Third Person Remote **

**The Buddha, the Bodhisattva, and the Bo **

**Climbing a Tall Building **

**Alienation **

**Diamond Hard **

**Who Cares? **

**Chapter Six: How Math Has Been Taught **

**Behind the Phenomena **

**The Teaching Wars **

**Cookbooks, Song-Lines, and Games **

**Ancestral Voices Calling for Reform **

**Anticurriculum **

**The Curate’s Egg **

**Russian Math Circles **

**Chapter Seven: How Mathematicians Actually Work **

**Chapter Eight: The Math Circle **

**Ends **

**Beginnings **

**The Students **

**The Leaders **

**The Math **

**Connecting **

**Intuition Grows **

**A Proof Takes Shape **

**Looking Leads to Seeing **

**Competition **

**Chapter Nine: Filling in the Details **

**Where’s the Kit? **

**Math Itself **

**Courses **

**Sample Outline of a Middle Course: Interesting Points in Triangles **

**Piecemeal Advice **

**Perilous Turnings and Pivotal Moments **

**From a Journal **

**What’s the Way Forward? **

**The Summer Institute **

**To Take with You **

**Acknowledgments **

**Footnotes **

**Appendix: Thoughts of a Young Teacher **

**A Note on Our Pronouns **

When I walked into the Harvard classroom, about eight students were already there, as I’d expected. But people passing by were surprised to see them—not because there was anything unusual in early arrivals at the beginning of a semester but because of what these students looked like: sitting in their tablet armchairs, their little legs sticking straight out in front of them. They were all about five years old.

This was the first class for these new members of The Math Circle. The parents, ranged at the back, may have been nervous, but their children weren’t, because it was simply the next thing to happen in a still unpredictable life.

Hello,

I said. Are there numbers between numbers?

I don’t know what you’re talking about,

said Dora, in the front row.

Oh—well, you’re right—I’m not too sure myself.

I drew a long line on the blackboard and put a 0 at one end, a 1 near the other. Is there anything in there?

Sam jumped up and down. No, there’s nothing there at all,

he exclaimed, except of course for one half.

This wasn’t as surprising a remark as you might think, since Sam had just turned an important five and a half.

Right,

I said, and made a mark very close to the 0 and carefully labeled it 1/2.

It doesn’t go there!

said Sonya, sitting next to Dora.

Really? Why not?

It goes in the middle.

Why?

"Because that’s what one half *means!*"

I erased my mark and, with a show of reluctance, moved 1/2 to the middle, acting now as no more than Sonya’s secretary.

Well,

I said, is there anything else in there?

Silence … five seconds of silence, which in a classroom can seem like five minutes. Ten seconds. Tom, at the back, got up and began to put on his jacket, because clearly the course was over: we’d found all there was to find between 0 and 1.

I guess it’s just a desert,

I said at last, with maybe a camel or a palm tree or two,

and began sketching in a palm tree on the number line.

Now that’s ridiculous!

said Dora, there can’t be any palm trees there!

Why not?

Because it isn’t that sort of thing!

This is an insight many a philosopher has struggled over.

Obediently I began erasing my palm tree, when I felt a hand grabbing the chalk from mine. It was Eric, who hadn’t said anything up to this point. He started making marks all over the number line—most of them between 0 and 1 but a fair number beyond each.

There are kazillions of numbers in here!

he shouted.

Is kazillion a number?

Sonya asked—and we were fully launched.

In the course of the semester’s ten one-hour classes, these children invented fractions (and their own notation for them), figured out how to compare them—as well as adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing them; and with a few leading questions from me, turned them into decimals. In the next-to-last class they discovered that the decimal form of a fraction always repeats—and in the last class of all came up with a decimal that had no fractional equivalent, since the way they made it guaranteed that it wouldn’t repeat (0.12345678910111213 …).

The conversations involved everyone, even a parent or two, who had to be restrained. Boasting and put-downs were quickly turned aside (this wasn’t that sort of thing), and an intense and delightful back-and-forth took their place.

A sample: after they had found all sorts of fractions in the second class (most but not all with numerator 1), and located them (often incorrectly) on the number line where they thought they should be, I began the third class by saying I was troubled by having 1/3 to the left of 1/4 (in that part of the desert between 0 and 1/2), as they had wanted.

You may be right,

I said, but I need convincing.

A long debate followed, which divided the class into those who would (for no very good reason other than reading my doubt) put 1/4 before 1/3, and those who argued for leaving things as they stood, on the grounds that since 4 was greater than 3, 1/4 had to be greater than 1/3.

At the start of the next class, Anne put up her hand. Would I please draw two pies on the board? I groaned inwardly: she must have had a conversation with her parents during the week; but I drew two large, equal circles for her.

Now make the Mercedes sign in one in one and a cross in the other,

she said. I did. We contemplated the drawings—the message seemed clear. But Anne wasn’t finished.

There, you see? If it’s a pie you like, a third is bigger than a fourth! But if it’s rhubarb, then a fourth is more than a third!

This wasn’t an argument I had encountered before.

You probably think this was a class of young geniuses, hand-picked for special training. In fact it was like any other Math Circle class: we take whoever comes—math lovers and math loathers; we don’t advertise but rely on word of mouth. True, this is in the Boston area, with its high percentage of academic and professional families, but we’ve had the same sort of classes with inner-city kids, suburban teenagers, college students, and retirees—from coast to coast, in London and Edinburgh, and (in German!) in Zurich and Berlin. The human potential for devising math, with pleasure, is as great as it is for creative play with one’s native language: because mathematics *is *our other native language.

We came up with the idea of having such sessions one warm September evening in 1994, while having dinner with our friend Tomás. The academic year was beginning, and what had long been bothering each of us inevitably came up: how could the teaching of math be in such bad shape—especially in a city known for mathematical research? All that our students, whether college freshmen or ninth graders, knew about math was that they had to take it and that they hated it.

We had chicken with cream and complaints, but the chocolate mousse that followed was too light for such gloom, and one of us said: Why don’t we simply start some classes ourselves?

Tomás thought he could rent the basement of a nearby church on Saturday mornings. We wrote up a list of friends with children and telephoned around: We’re going to have some informal conversations about math this Saturday morning. Would your children be interested?

One of those we’d spoken to had heard of Nina Goldmakher in Brookline, who ran a Russian literary circle for children, and called her up. She was wonderfully enthusiastic and sent all of her students to us. We began that first morning with twenty-nine teenagers.

Word spread. We outgrew the church basement by the end of the semester, and Professor Andrei Zelevinsky, at Northeastern University, offered us free rooms there. Parents of younger and younger students called us up; Professor Daniel Goroff at Harvard found rooms for them on weekdays. To keep classes small, we trained graduate students as teachers. We incorporated as a nonprofit in 1996, still rely only on word of mouth, averaging 120 students each semester, meeting in twelve different sections. We’ve kept the style informal, the bureaucracy minimal—and couldn’t have more fun.

What has stood in the way of enjoying and mastering math as one does music, how we have removed these barriers in The Math Circle, and how such circles for young and old may now spread, is the subject of this book.

A Puritan twist in our nature makes us think that anything good for us must be twice as good if it’s hard to swallow. Learning Greek and Latin used to play the role of character builder, since they were considered to be as exhausting and unrewarding as digging a trench in the morning and filling it up in the afternoon. It was what made a man, or a woman—or more likely a robot—of you. Now math serves that purpose in many schools: your task is to try to follow rules that make sense, perhaps, to some higher beings; and in the end to accept your failure with humbled pride. As you limp off with your aching mind and bruised soul, you know that nothing in later life will ever be as difficult.

**Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile.—Francis Bacon **

What a perverse fate for one of our kind’s greatest triumphs! Think how absurd it would be were music treated this way (for math and music are both excursions into sensuous structure): suffer through playing your scales, and when you’re an adult you’ll never have to listen to music again. And this is mathematics we’re talking about, the language in which, Galileo said, the Book of the World is written. This is mathematics, which reaches down to our deepest intuitions and outward toward the nature of the universe—mathematics, which explains the atoms as well as the stars in their courses, and lets us see into the ways that rivers and arteries branch. For mathematics itself is the study of connections: how things ideally must and, in fact, do sort together—beyond, around, and within us. It doesn’t just help us to balance our checkbooks; it leads us to see the balances hidden in the tumble of events, and the shapes of those quiet symmetries behind the random clatter of things. At the same time, we come to savor it, like music, wholly for itself. Applied or pure, mathematics gives whoever enjoys it a matchless self-confidence, along with a sense of partaking in truths that follow neither from persuasion nor from faith but stand foursquare on their own. This is why it appeals to what we will come back to again and again: our *architectural instinct*—as deep in us as any of our urges.

Look around you: trees grow in countless shapes, birds in their infinite variety dart among them, we stroll in their shade, intent on divergent ends—yet we and the birds and the trees can only live and move because our collection of parts, and the forces acting on them, are in an ever-changing equilibrium, like a Calder mobile. The parts and the forces alike anatomize down to triangles, and these balance—singly and collectively—only because, no matter how different one triangle is from another, each has a center of gravity: the single point where its three medians meet. Nothing seems to demand that there always *be *this single point: why couldn’t two of the medians meet at one place and the third meet each of them elsewhere? Why should such a coincidence happen in any triangle, much less all? And yet we can prove, with a logical argument impervious to rhetoric, that this source of our animation must lie in every triangle that ever was, or is, or could be. The argument is of our devising, but it darts up all at once, away from our here and now and our strolling personae, like a bird, high above the trees, and even beyond the birds, to a timeless understanding of the hang of things.

**It was a felicitous expression of Goethe’s to call a noble cathedral frozen music, but it might even better be called petrified mathematics.—J. W. A. Young **

This is the serene countenance of mathematics. How did so shining a beauty turn into such a wicked witch? Very young children are obsessed with numbers, counting everything in sight and playing counting-out games and fooling around with numbers and their names and their symbols the way they fool around with words in that exuberant gaiety that can blossom to meaning-bearing metaphor.

Then comes school.

By the time children are twelve the fun has all been leached out, and dread competes with boredom for its place. They begin to feel that math is in league with their enemies to make fools of them.

We teachers are largely to blame. Many of us are ourselves afraid of math. So many elementary school teachers love reading or writing or history or civics or ecology—math comes last on the list. And why shouldn’t it? The traumatized child is father to the traumatized man. Few teachers have a secure sense of how what they teach dovetails into the whole (or even that there *is *a whole). They aren’t sure what justifies the stupid rules you have to memorize (‘My Dear Aunt Sally’: Multiply first, then Divide, then Add, last, Subtract

).**¹ They become the hated tax collectors on their students’ fund of good will, sent out by a remote authority that publishes Edicts of Right Answers. Of course they end up doing their best teaching not of math but of their fear of it. How could they not conspire with their victims to get through the hours and days and weeks and months as quickly and unquestioningly as possible? **

We’ve described the worst of these teachers. What about the better ones? They want their students to understand how to add 1/3 and 1/5, and so show them that 1/2 and 1/3 can be rewritten as 3/6 and 2/6, which add up to 5/6. And 1/4 + 1/5 is the same as 5/20 + 4/20, making 9/20 … so look, 1/3 + 1/5 turns into what? 5/15 + 3/15 … and that’s … yes … 8/15.

Good; but do two examples prove a truth? Do twenty, or even two hundred? Are teachers going to derive the notion of least common multiple instead from the axioms for arithmetic (or, shades of the 1970s, from set theory!), and send their ten-year-olds screaming into the street? Are they going to sidestep the whole issue by turning fractions into decimals and letting fingers solicit the answer from the oracle of calculators, so that we all become the slaves of our mechanical servants?

Even teachers with the best intentions in the world find themselves compressed under the moving hand of the clock, which leaves neither leisure to explore nor the vital pause for doubting, and certainly no room to follow conjectures wherever they may lead. Everyone (except mathematicians) knows there is only one right answer. Everyone (except mathematicians) knows your thinking has to start salivating when the bell rings, and run panting until the next bell, and then stop, so that what were games become contests, and delight is turned into anxiety, and getting that right answer becomes the goal, instead of understanding.

Behind these many ways of blunting thought stands a problem peculiar to mathematics. Look back on your own career: you may have had only one good teacher of literature or history or language, preceded and followed by worse—but that one bright spot lit up the whole field and preserved it for you, so that you could take pleasure in reading or writing on your own. But learning mathematics is linked and linear: once you trip up, all the good teaching in the world is not likely to set you again on its path. Fall from a ledge and the odds are slim that you’ll climb back up to and past it.

Here are places at each of which many students have lost their footing. Each of us remembers where it happened to us:

place value

negative numbers

long multiplication, and worse, long division

adding fractions

letters for numbers

x, the unknown

x, the variable

rigorous proof

imaginary numbers

limits and calculus

non-Euclidean geometry

topology

category theory

In everything else we do there are degrees and stages of mastery, so that we can not only see where we’re going and how far we’ve come but can in fact enjoy ourselves at each level, with that fine capacity of ours for imagining the sandlot to be Yankee Stadium. The novice guitarist relishes the music he makes, strumming one or two chords behind the vocal and losing all sense of self in the performance: the amateur by definition *loves, *and love knows no hierarchy. Even professional athletes will remember with more pleasure a sunlit game when they were ten than a triumph at the peak of their careers. Only in mathematics does mastery of one level seem to count for nothing when entering the next. How did learning place value and memorizing your times tables prepare you for figuring out how to add 1/3 + 1/5? Back to square one! Mathematics makes mountains out of such molehills, and a Sisyphus out of each of its climbers.

Why should this be? The reasons go down to the very roots of the art. People must have struggled for a long time with adding fractions before someone thought it through and realized that you can only add together things of the same sort (3 apples and 5 oranges are either just 3 apples and 5 oranges—*or *8 pieces of fruit). You need to turn thirds and fifths into the same kind of fraction. Then comes the second, tactical insight that not eighths (3 + 5) but fifteenths (3 × 5) were this kind (and why is that? Has it something to do with *dividing *a pie into pieces?). To teach it now as if it were A Rule, or (even more intimidating) The Law, is to pretend that what took years of experiment and ingenuity is as obvious as your nose. And then, because you never really had a chance to understand what was going on (A negative times a negative is positive, because that’s the way it is!

), whenever you need this rule again it will come as just that—an arbitrary fiat, enforced by Them. And so the whole integrity of mathematics is compromised. The only reasonable conclusion for a struggling student to draw from such pretense is that he is irremediably stupid, or that Mathematics works in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform.

Kant said that mathematics is synthetic a priori: synthetic because we invent it, and a priori—prior to any experience—because we then see our inventions as discoveries. It is very hard to believe that the way to add fractions wasn’t already out there

—wherever there

is: independent of us and our hit-or-miss contrivings. Out there with the fractions—but of course they too were invented by us. We certainly are still very far from understanding the relation between thought, mathematics, and the world; but our ignorance is no excuse for pretending to others that what took effort (and perhaps well-prepared luck) to grasp should now be obvious to all. A teacher we knew told a student to take his feet off the desk. I’ve been telling people for twenty years to take their feet off the desk!

Yes, but it was *this *student’s first day in school.

We fall so easily into taking new mathematical insights as eternal knowledge for several reasons. Once you get the hang of a tool you want to use it and, intent on the application, tend to forget or ignore the time and thought it took to get that hang. If you’re in the Tour de France, having learned to balance on a bike belongs to a prior existence. It is an understandable failure of imagination, then, coupled with impatience, that leads a teacher into thinking that what is obvious to him must be obvious to his student, so let’s get on with it. It is likely, too, that many a teacher of mathematics hasn’t realized that math has a history (a fault of the way we train our teachers, as if standing on the shoulders of giants meant we had no need to look down), and so a teacher, who is supposed to develop our powers of inquiry, becomes instead a messenger of Received Truth.

Mathematical shorthand plays a role here too. It is so easy and quick to write 1/3 + 1/5 = 5/15 + 3/15 = 8/15 that we’re swept past the thinking by the notation. If you can say it that quickly, there must not be that much to it. Impatience, slick symbols, and lack of imagination are external forces etching the ledges of mathematics. But these ledges are also intrinsic to the singular material of mathematics, which is *structure. *What can you get your hands on, what can you see? You may see three apples and five apples, and by an act of imagination (for regrouping is nothing less), realize that you have eight apples—but you never see 3

and 5

bare. Not even Euclid did. To recognize that behind the apples and pears, 3 + 5 = 8, is an act of abstraction unique, perhaps, to our species. How can we see 1/3 and 1/5? Taking two pies and cutting one up into thirds and the other in fifths may help; abstracting the pies to circles on the board and doing your dissections there may help yet more; but it isn’t even the symbols 1/3

and 1/5

we’re talking about; it’s what they stand for, which you can’t picture. Even the mind-boggling abstraction:

*points to *the immaterial relation we have in mind, which as teachers we would like another to have in mind too, and so grasp in all its generality. We have to recognize that this is an undertaking like no other (save perhaps music). The handholds seem to grow fewer the higher you climb.

Mathematics is all ledges. You no sooner acclimate yourself to breathing the thin air at this new height than the way opens up to one still higher (because math is freely—you might almost think arbitrarily—invented). No sooner do you feel comfortable at turning your new insight into the condensed form of symbols that can be used mechanically (because math is a priori: it underlies our thought) than you have to start thinking from scratch again about what some combination of these symbols suggests. 1/3 + x = 1/5: what am I supposed to do with that? This x isn’t like the a, b, c, and d in a/b + c/d, which were placeholders for any numbers (or almost any numbers): it is an unknown let loose like a wolf in the sheepfold of fixed quantities. Still, it is an unknown, which, if I can just contrive a way, I can make known as a fixed quantity too. But what about

what is x, what are x and y, now? Not fixed but variable quantities (if such a term makes any sense). Ten-year-olds the world round beg their teachers: "Won’t you please tell us after class what x *really *is?" And everything we’ve mastered so far seems to count for nothing; it all slips around and the very nature of number is put in doubt. Those ledges we’ve already struggled up hardly needed stepping over, compared to these rising endlessly above—and they rise not continuously but by jumps: new ways of looking, new definitions, new axioms that make you brace yourself for pushing the rock once more up the mountain.

Those who love to climb mountains have a very different view of them, and it may be no accident that so many mathematicians are also mountain walkers and climbers. It isn’t just the exhilaration of solving the rock face, but the fresher air along the way and the long views from the top that draw them on. O height!

exclaimed Petrarch, the first man, they say, to climb a mountain for pleasure—and so say we in The Math Circle. We aim to take acrophobia away by having our students do the climbing however they will, with us as their Sherpas. We bring up the supplies and peg down the base camp; we point out an attractive col or a dangerous crevasse; but *they *do the exploring on a terrain we’ve brought them to.

**Mathematics is the science which draws necessary conclusions.—Benjamin Pierce **

Those kids you glimpsed finding fractions between 0 and 1 will either come up with the problem of adding fractions themselves, or we will drop the question, when it seems most natural to do so, into the ongoing conversation. Since it *is *a conversation, our questions are no more intrusive than theirs: they come in sideways, not from above. So absorbed are they in their creation that they rarely ask if we know what the answer is (and if they do, we answer with a question or a suggestion that will face them around in a useful direction). Because math is a human enterprise and they are humans, their thoughts can’t help but tack around the direct line. Look at a prehistoric ovoid hand ax from Périgord and a triangular hand ax from Tanzania: different in detail, their structure is the same because they solve, as humans would, a human problem.

Surprising and delightful things will come up. A common multiple, other than the least, of two denominators may be the first to surface, and even should the least then appear, affection for the firstborn—or the delight that small children take in large numbers—may lead them to settle on the larger one.

1/3 is 20/60 and 1/5 is 12/60, so 1/3 + 1/5 is 32/60!

exclaimed Tom. This puzzled Sonya, who had gotten 1/3 + 1/5 = 15/45 + 9/45 = 24/45, and was sure she was right. That there were two different answers to the same question—and that both turned out to be right—was a revelation whose metaphorical value stayed with them.

They do the exploring, but each of us who leads a Math Circle course has clearly in mind from the start what the goal is; wandering around aimlessly is as boring as being marched from point to point. I wanted my young students to develop the arithmetic of fractions, to relate fractions to decimals, and at the end to invent a number that wasn’t a fraction. But had they followed another line of thought, which seemed to me fruitful—from least common multiples to greatest common divisors, say, and to the Euclidean algorithm, or primes—I would have unpegged my tent and moved it to their line (and indeed I have, in other semesters when the opening question was the same, but the conversation took off entirely differently). These are decisions that have to be made more or less on the spot, and are one of the quick-reflex challenges that make Math Circle teaching exciting fun. You’re in there doing math with other minds; the goal is clear but the ways to it are up for grabs and at the mercy of temperament and insight. It is just about the most exhilarating thing you can do.

Because the arena is conversation rather than competition, the students—whether they are five or fifteen or fifty—are first startled by, then quickly come to relish, other points of view. They take a collective pride in one another’s insights: How did you ever think of that!

Since the majority of suggestions that come up are faulty or imprecise or incomplete, fear and embarrassment disappear in a mutual mulling over and reshaping of questions and answers. They like the image we’ve passed on to them from the mathematician Barry Mazur: we are all very small mice gnawing at a very big piece of cheese; no shame, then, in having bitten into a hole, nor any need to hoard up precious crumbs.

Rhythms of different depths pulse through an hour’s class and the ten weeks of a course. With the very young, attention flags after twenty minutes or so, or a threshold of frustration is reached. Time for their favorite sport: function machines. One of them announces that she has a secret rule; we put in numbers, she tells us what comes out (the Sherpa is now a blackboard amanuensis, keeping up an input-output chart underneath a baroque drawing of a function machine, or later, letting the machine draw itself

—off-handedly introducing them to graphing, that is—and we almost always manage to guess the rule eventually, to universal delight). Then back to where we were, with spirits refreshed.

A deeper rhythm

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