I was speaking to Mr. Paul at a petrol pump in Kolkata. He lives in Birati and has an eight year old daughter. Mr. Paul noticed that the little girl has a keen interest in mathematics. People in Kolkata are chatty. Perhaps my attire and demeaner gives away my profession. He enquired briefly about the nature of my work (‘ki koren’) and then earnestly requested my counsel: ‘how should I help my daughter with mathematics?
I tried to explain a few of my ideas. ‘She should do interesting problems, parents should informally chat about such ideas at dinner table, she should not enter into formal training’ were my usual suggestions. Mr. Paul told me about the kid’s involvement with abacus. ‘She is in 4th year. I am worried if it is creating excessive pressure on her brain.’
Many kids do abacus at an early age. This ancient Chinese calculation tool has really made some inroads in Indian households. Personally I do not believe that calculation based exercises should have such a center-stage in children’s lives. It creates a wrong impression about the more important aspects of mathematics; deduction, imagination, construction and so on.
‘Why don’t you use’… I paused a little for the appropriate phrase…’creative problems?’
I had the math circle experience of eastern Europe in my mind. Additionally I was thinking about the hands-on, constructivist approach suggested by Cedric Villani, the holistic approach to education suggested by Tagore and so on. I needed something catchy, possibly in at most two words. as an alternative to ‘abacus’ and routine mathematics.
Apparently Mr. Paul found the phrase actionable. ‘Where can I find this thing; the creative problems.’
The Thousand Flowers program and Math Olympiad program at Cheenta certainly uses what I have in mind. It has been implemented systematically over the last few years. We certainly noticed that the effect of this program on children is quite profound. It transforms the way they approach mathematics.
This program at Cheenta draws from many resources. However there is no one-stop shop for all of these ideas and tools. Over the last few years I have contemplated several times about creating a book that will incorporate the ideas and tools that we use in this program.
The ‘Creative Math’ project is an attempt to write such a book. Ideally there should be 12 books corresponding to 12 years of schooling for a child. It should contain theory, problems and projects that students, teachers and parents can use. The thrust of these books is to introduce non-routine problem solving and an attitude for research in children. Moreover, it should encourage activities that promotes a culture that celebrates intellectual and spiritual happiness over material well-being. After all, as Gabor Szego pointed out, a deep involvement in mathematical enquiry over a sustained period of time is possible only when there is a cultural preference of such pursuits.