Humanizing numbers

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In a course I am leading for future teachers, one of the discussions was about comparing math, sciences and the humanities. I always encourage my students to read (and to write) Wikipedia. Lisa R. quoted the definition of the humanities from there, namely: “The humanities are academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative” – and then she talked about humanizing numbers. What a neat idea!

The “analytical” part is common between math and the humanities. I realized that one of well-loved activities I do with young kids is all about adding critical and speculative elements to numbers.

I ask kids to draw numbers as characters, and to tell their stories. What color is each number? Do numbers have tails or wings? What clothes do they wear? Which ones are kind and which ones are mean? What are some numbers you personally like? What note would you play for each number on the piano?

Have you ever done activities like this with kids? Do you have favorite books or movies that do it? One of my favorite childhood stories, “The Magister of Absent-Minded Sciences,” in addition to humans, had several characters who happened to be numbers! Zero was young, proud and prone to be spectacularly wrong about the world. One was more meticulous – she would always rescue him and help him save face, too. Here’s how Zero looked:

Magister Of Absent-Minded Sciences 0


Of course, you can do the same activity about any other object, like functions or equations.

Many mathematicians claim they hear melodies of equations, or see equations in color. The name for this effect is synesthesia.


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Posted in Grow

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