September 27th, 2007
Daniel Tammet has an extraordinary relationship with numbers. Born with Asperger’s Syndrome, Daniel has an extremely kinaesthetic relationship with number, and has a host of other impressive mental abilities, such as his extreme aptitude for learning languages rapidly. His book Born on a Blue Day is a wonderful memoir of his life to this point, and well worth a look both because it is a great read, and because it offers an interesting insight into Asperger’s Syndrome.
Mathematically however, it is even more interesting. Daniel suffered at school because his mind was creating associations between numbers and other concepts, and between the numbers themselves in creative and unexpected ways. He and his parents had the courage – or perhaps just the necessity – to persist in working in and with those associations. They have served him well; his numerical mental dexterity is far beyond what almost anyone else could muster.
Schools are inevitably ‘one size fits all’ institutions to some extent. Schools are mass-education institutions; it is not possible to ‘personalise learning’ precisely for individual students. That is not to say that the Personalised Learning initiatives from the government are bad things, far from it; merely that because often a teacher is dealing with about 30 students, it is not possible to tailor learning exactly to the needs of every student.
In mathematics classrooms, the tendency to make uniform what is not becomes more apparent. In maths teaching there is a tendency towards drill and rote. It can be seen clearly in textbooks, and it is confirmed by asking any reasonable cross-section of society to recount their experiences of maths at school.
It would be absurd to argue that allowing students more freedom to explore the associations between numbers and to create their own understandings of them will most students become as adept at maths as Daniel. Nevertheless the root of his understanding of number comes across as creatively based rather than based in algorithms and routines. To me, Daniel’s story is compelling evidence in support of the theory that creativity and imagination are central to the development of young mathematicians.
As a foot-note, after reading Daniel’s book I began to reflect on the ways in which I perceive numbers. This directly led me to expand my own concept of the structure of numbers by creating the Primitives concept.