Mathematics is at my core. I don’t know why I am
wired this way—I just am. But I learned very quickly that not everyone has the
same appreciation for mathematics that I do. I absolutely have no problem with
that. But I will not shy away from professing my love for something that
defines and shapes me while also keeping my role as a mathematics educator at
We have seen the posters, the T-shirts, the bumper
stickers, and the jewelry that proclaim an individual’s idolatry of
mathematics. I think these are great. They help substantiate one’s place in the
world and can even help unite people with common interests. But, as a teacher,
I like to use them to start conversations about mathematics and even to provide
For example, the clock shown here (marketed as the
Geek Clock) hangs in my office:
I often catch people looking at this clock when they
come in to talk about a nonmathematical issue. Their expressions always give
them away—as mathematics enthusiasts, as mathematics appreciators, or even as
mathematics loathers. My goal is never one of conversion but of conversation.
When I sense that the moment is right, I will ask, “Which of those expressions
make sense to you?” I will often admit that there are several that I always
have to look up myself. This clock is a great conversation starter, and the
discussion often focuses on the person’s mathematics experiences as a student.
We can then discuss all sorts of mathematics (from cube roots to infinite
decimals) or even why some people have anxiety about mathematics.
Many other mathematical clocks are out there, including
some that can instigate a conversation about mathematical errors or lack of
precision. A very popular clock that I have seen in a number of places
(including colleagues’ offices and classrooms) is this one:
I appreciate that the mathematics on this clock is
more accessible than that on the Geek Clock, but I am bothered by several
things that appear. First, this clock has more than just expressions on it; it
contains several equations as well. I could assume that I am supposed to solve
equations like –8 = 2 – x for x and use that value, but that is an
assumption on my part. More bothersome, though, is the equation 52 – x + x2
= 10. This quadratic equation has two real-number solutions: 7 and –6. When the
hour hand is pointing at this equation, could it really be negative six o’clock
(other than in the world of mod 13)?
But perhaps the most egregious error can be seen in
the expression at 9 o’clock: 3(π–.14). The implication
is that pi is exactly equal to 3.14,
an inaccuracy that mathematics teachers often hear (and may unwittingly
perpetuate). When I see this clock, I can’t help but seize the teachable moment
and ask, “Do you see anything wrong with this clock?” I brace myself for the
response, “Yes, it has math on it,” and steer the conversation back to the
mathematics that is presented on the clock—mindful that my goal is not to shame
but to educate.
We must continue to make time for
mathematics in our own lives as well as those around us. I love the exactitude
that much of mathematics is built on, but I am also mindful that not everyone
sees things the same way that I do.
I still can’t help being not only a math
geek but also a mathematics teacher.
Jeffrey J. Wanko teaches
mathematics methods courses at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is
interested in the development of students’ logical reasoning skills using