# How do I show students the Beauty of Mathematics?

I teach many high school students, and all of them complain about being unable to fully understand mathematical concepts. I try to show them the joy of learning and deepen their understanding through games and quizzes. Yet they still feel it is too tedious to understand the theories.

Many of the students say they don’t like mathematics because they only learn for examinations. How do I show them the true beauty of mathematics?

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• Like algebra, trigonometry, geometry – Axel Tong Feb 14 at 8:24
• See the Wikipedia entry for Mathematical beauty. – Joel Reyes Noche Feb 14 at 8:37
• Could you update the question instead of answering in comments? – vol7ron Feb 16 at 1:55
• @ruferd: Numberphile is full of wrong math, as many mathematicians can tell you... – user21820 Feb 16 at 3:16
• The root of “teach” is “show.” So show, don’t tell. Show them how you think. Show them how to think. Show them how to learn to think with mathematics. The beauty of mathematics is what happens in the mind of the student. Show them that beauty, which is inside themselves. – user1527 Feb 17 at 1:05

To expand on my comment, I found that high school kids like watching YouTube videos. (I mean, they don't have to do any work right? Just sit and listen.) These are a few of my go to channels to pull mathematical ideas from. I try to show them short clips that might motivate them to think abuot math in a different way, not only just "plug it into the formulas." That could be anything that makes them wonder what college level math is like, why certain patterns are true, some counter-intuitive examples, etc.

Numberphile: Good for more recreational type math. Think of Fibonacci and Golden Ratio type stuff. It's like, just math for fun and neat patterns, but they go a little deeper on some topics.

3Blue1Brown: GREAT animations, focuses on the intuition behind a lot of deeper math. Might be a bit advanced though.

ThinkTwice: Great animations as well, shows a lot of "proofs with no words" and really helps connect the algebraic equations to the geometric visuals.

Zach Star (formerly called Major Prep): He has some videos like "What Mathematicians still can't solve," "surprising facts from math," and even a few videos called "Dear students, this is why you're learning about _____" (although that last example is more aimed at Calculus students)

VSauce just happened to have a good Brachistochrone video, but I'm not sure what else he has that is directly math related.

EDIT: Steve's Gubkin's answer talks about being in prison and painting. The painting analogy reminds me of this interview that tried to answer the question "why does everyone hate math." The mathematician creates the analogy of an art class. In art class, you were surely shown the paintings of Picasso, Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, etc. They tried to inspire you by showing you the greatest hits of all time. How many math teachers show 'the greatest math hits' of all time? Tell your students about Fermat's Last Theorem, the Four Color Theorem, The Riemann Hypothesis, solving the Cubic Formula. Show them that these greatest hits weren't discovered over night, but instead, after several decades (or centuries even) of tough work. This might show them that math is something other than just a call-and-response game of "read the question, then plug the numbers into a formula."

EDIT 2: After reading the comments, I remembered another channel worth mentioning. Eddie Woo is a pretty famous math educator. He teaches high school and posts a lot of his class lectures on YouTube. I wouldn't be so interested in the class lectures, but he has some clips that talk about why learning math is interesting and the deeper side of math. Here's one that talks about the motivation behind complex numbers and a bit of the history of the cubic formula. It's one of those mis-attributed moments where a lot of teachers say "we use complex number to solve all quadratics" when in reality, complex numbers only came about in search of the cubic formula and our inability to reconcile the fact that expressions like $$\sqrt[3]{2-2i}+\sqrt[3]{2+2i}$$ can actually be a real number. So, I wouldn't use this channel to show to students, but I would use it to see how someone else motivates a particular topic when I have a hard time finding a motivation for it.

• I don't like screaming-case, but for 3Blue1Brown's animations, “GREAT” is still an understatement. – leftaroundabout Feb 14 at 20:03
• Vsauce also had some very good videos on ordinal numbers and the Banach–Tarski paradox. – IllidanS4 wants Monica back Feb 15 at 1:23
• Vi Hart also has some good videos which may connect better, depending on the specific topic. – ssokolow Feb 16 at 4:17
• My favourite by far is mathologer (available on YouTube). – PatrickT Feb 16 at 7:25
• @ssokolow Yep, I knew I was going to leave some good channels off of the list. I used to Watch Vi Hart quite a bit, but to be honest, I haven't seen that channel in a while, so I'm not sure if I know how good the new stuff is, but definitely a channel to add to the list. – ruferd Feb 17 at 13:12

Imagine you are put in jail. You are forced to paint a painting every day for 10 years. You have no choice in the subject: one month you paint dogs, another month you paint horses, another month you paint lampposts. The prison guard verbally chastises you when your painting is not up to their standard. If you doodle something on your own, outside of the directed painting, you are similarly chastised.

Failure to paint a sufficient number of paintings of sufficient "quality" will result in your sentence being extended by a year or two.

In this context, how can we inspire you to see the beauty in painting?

• For me in high school there was never any explanation as to why something works, it was just explained as "Just being that way", and any questions into why something was discovered or how it can be used were never truly answered for me. In addition, there was never a concept of why it would be important, during high school the only motivator for the instructor was test scores. Now as a computer science student I have to redo everything myself, even if its not required for a class as I can actually use this information and appreciate it. Im sure this doesn't apply to every student, however. – john doe Feb 14 at 19:26
• @Mazura Our education system is not voluntary. Children are forced to be there. If someone forces you to do anything, no matter how awesome it might ordinarily be, it is going to suck. If someone forces you to eat ice cream, that will not be an enjoyable experience. I think those of us who discover the beauty in academic subjects in k-12 do so despite the system, not because of it. I am glad to teach in a university where study is not compulsory, but even here I contend with a lot of these issues (viewing mathematics as a hurdle rather than an end in itself). – Steven Gubkin Feb 15 at 15:43
• This doesn't answer the question. – YiFan Feb 16 at 1:12
• This answer pointed out problems with the education system in some places using a clever analogy (and make no mistake: the problems you point out are far from universal). Never did you prove, however, that it was impossible to inspire students even under this context. Indeed there is much reason to believe it is not impossible, and the attitude you seem to be advoating here seems to be negligent and counterproductive, hence my previous comment. – YiFan Feb 16 at 13:56
• @YiFan The question is "How can I show students the beauty of mathematics". My answer (and it IS an answer) is "Dismantle the oppressive system which is causing the damage". – Steven Gubkin Feb 16 at 14:09

As a child I found maths extremely boring, the biggest problem was that what I was being taught had no relevance to my life as a child, after all apart from counting and spending pocket money what possible use was it to me?

Until I discovered the equation for calculating the optimal size of loud speakers for my bedroom. Finally maths that I could relate to and use, suddenly maths wasn't boring.

So my advice to you would be to try and find some way to make the maths relevant and something your pupils can relate to in their lives.

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• The question refers to "beauty"; your answer refers to something that you "could relate to and use." It is not clear to me how this is related to "beauty." Something beautiful is not necessarily relatable or useful. – Joel Reyes Noche Feb 15 at 15:37
• Homo sapiens find beauty in clear skies, tranquil waves, sweet smelling breeze: perfect conditions to go out and explore. Like the beautiful lines of a well-designed ship, beautiful mathematics isn't random; it's beautiful insofar as it expands our horizons and lets us see new things. The getting us there is the utility, and making it visible is the relatability. – Luke Griffiths Feb 17 at 5:33

I'd look at the books by Dunham ("Journey through genius", "The mathematical universe" are more or less general, he wrote several others) or at the outstanding "Proofs from THE BOOK" by Aigner/Ziegler. On Quora there is a section on "Beautiful mathematics", mostly elementary stuff.

Probably a search for "beautiful mathematics" will net a selection of blogs by enthusiastic mathematicians.

“The Mechanical Universe,” is a critically-acclaimed series of 52 thirty-minute videos covering the basic topics of an introductory university physics course.

Each program in the series opens and closes with Caltech Professor David Goodstein providing philosophical, historical and often humorous insight into the subject at hand while lecturing to his freshman physics class. The series contains hundreds of computer animation segments, created by Dr. James F. Blinn, as the primary tool of instruction. Dynamic location footage and historical re-creations are also used to stress the fact that science is a human endeavor.

I used to watch this as a kid, and although I (still) understand none of the math, I learned that the entire cosmos can be explained mathematically. The professor is as engaging as the 70s animations are dated, but the synopsis above explains why someone who could probably care less can become enraptured.

• "If there is a key to understanding the mechanical universe, it can be found in the realm of mathematics." – Mazura Feb 15 at 22:48
• I'm trying to find something I saw recently about 'teaching for the test' and how somewhere between childhood and adulthood we lose our curiosity. A quote from Carl Sagan will have to suffice: "Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet." - and if you want to do something, guess what: it requires math. – Mazura Feb 15 at 23:16

I'm having a lot of success right now in that area with a class I'm teaching, in which I have several assignments over the course of the quarter that center around self-directed learning. It takes some scaffolding to make it work well (how do you ask a good mathematical question? What counts as a good answer?) but once I got that done, a lot of the students really caught fire - last quarter, they turned in two five-page papers discussing a question they developed and the way they answered it. A few even taught me something I'd never known before!

Of course, doing that came at the cost of a fair bit of class time - if you're teaching in a high-school environment, or a traditional college course, you probably have enough curriculum to get through that you don't have time for a major assignment that isn't directly covering the curriculum. And grading something like this is a bit of a nightmare. But you can do miniature versions of it - a day or two of class where students have a choice of which problems to work on might be successful, especially if you set aside some time after to reflect with them ("which problems were easier? Which were more interesting? Look at this weird little detail, isn't that funny?").

There's a prevailing theme here, and it's the same as what a couple of answers have suggested before: there's no beauty or fun without choice. The more choice you can put into the hands of the students, the better they'll understand the material and the more they'll appreciate it. I make a habit of building this into everyday activities, whenever possible; for example, when demonstrating a problem for the students, I aim to show not just the best way to solve a problem, but a few alternatives that are a little less efficient but might "feel" better for them.

I agree with anjama's comment: give them applied examples. Use something like the free Godot engine to create simple "games" (read: interactive apps) that demonstrate concepts of trigonometry, geometry, and linear algebra. It's really quite easy to get started with Godot if you know some basic programming, and once the kids see a game engine, and see how math can be directly used to make video games, you can bet at least some of them will be excited.

If any of my teachers had shown me anything like that, I would have shat myself with excitement. "I can use this math to make games on my computer at home?!" Instead we went outside and used a clinometer to measure the height of trees ....

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Many of the students say they don’t like mathematics because they only learn for examinations. How do I show them the true beauty of mathematics?

How about testing them on that beautiful content on the examinations?

EDIT: And/Or give a wider variety of math assessments that count for grades. Projects, presentations, performances, role playing, games, discussions, etc., all of which can more easily incorporate the true beauty of mathematics.

• Many teachers at the middle/high school level simply do not have that level of control over the syllabus, so this is pretty much out of the question. And even if they did, this is not a useful idea imho---the very fact that they are learning for examinations will take away any possible perception of "beauty" from the content being learnt. – YiFan Feb 16 at 14:03
• Once something becomes a target, it ceases to be beautiful. See, for example, literally all literature examinations. – user3482749 Feb 17 at 12:21
• @YiFan - They cannot make even ask their departments for changes to the test? In the short run, they may have no control, but they should have some over the long-run. – WeCanLearnAnything Feb 17 at 21:15
• @user3482749 - Sounds to me like an enormously huge generalization. You're saying that it is literally impossible to put mathematical beauty on an exam. Can you prove this impossibility? Or can you state how different schools of thought would approach this? Can you say for sure there is no teacher anywhere on Earth, past, present, or future, that will ever succeed at this? – WeCanLearnAnything Feb 17 at 21:17
• Quite often, the main focus of high school level teachers is to prepare students for a major national exam (e.g. the O- and A-levels in Singapore), the syllabus of which they certainly have no control over. Hence the intra-school tests are usually made in relation to the syllabus for the national exam, which is seen as the main goal, and no teacher is able to change that. Of course, the situation might be different in other locations, but within the system I'm familiar with, this is the unfortunate reality. – YiFan Feb 17 at 21:47

Péter Rózsa's classic book, Playing with Infinity is an excellent intro of maths to non-mathematicians. Perhaps it would help. MAA review: https://www.maa.org/press/maa-reviews/playing-with-infinity

Simple: You do not.

Some people like maths and will see beauty in it.

Others will not consider it beautiful no matter how useful it is or no matter how much you show them maths that you personally consider 'beautiful'.

A personal anecdote:

Personally speaking I very much disliked maths at school, despite being told I was good at it.
Like fellow user @SteveSmith, one of my primary reasons for disliking it was that I saw no use for it.
Later in life I took up programming and suddenly found that I actually had a use for all those formerly useless things I despised.

Over time my hatred of maths lessened as I found more uses for it, to the point that I now find most of it tolerable or am willing to attempt things if I have a particular use for them, and in some cases I've even gone out of my way to learn things that I don't need to know (e.g. group theory) purely because I've found it interesting.

However, despite there being a number of things about maths that I find useful or interesting,
I have never found any part of maths that I'd honestly consider 'beautiful'.

So my advice to you is this:

Don't even bother trying to show your class that maths is 'beautiful'.
The people you convince will only be the ones who would naturally like maths.
For the rest, if you truly want to convince them to take an interest then don't try to convince them that maths is beautiful, try to demonstrate to them that maths is relevant to their lives.

If you cannot manage that, then try to find ways to make maths less painful for them - demonstrate ways to break problems down into simpler problems, demonstrate rules like additive and multiplicative identity and inverse elements and how those things can be used to reduce complex problems to simpler forms.

Failing that, just give up on trying to convince them to like maths.
Let them reluctantly get through the class and achieve whatever grade they achieve.
For some people, it's simply not possible to convince them to like maths.

• You hated math but started to like it because it was useful or interesting. Similarly i like cheese and am interested in different kinds, but haven't found a beautiful cheese yet. – Cees Timmerman Feb 18 at 1:59
• @CeesTimmerman No, I still don't really like it. I find some maths useful, or interesting, or a necessary evil, but that doesn't mean I actually 'like' those particular aspects. I still don't really enjoy it and will generally avoid it when possible. I do however like cheese, perhaps even enough to deem certain cheeses 'beautiful' - Double Gloucester is certainly a good contender for 'beautiful'. (As funny as that sounds, I'm almost completely serious.) – Pharap 2 days ago

If you mean literal beauty, audio visualizers like MilkDrop, Friktal, and Particles can be interesting. As of course game engines like Unreal and the demoscene that tends to combine them into incredibly small programs like 64 KiB and even 8 KiB.

One of those demo guys wrote an article about automating boring math. (In JSFiddle you may need to change the JavaScript load type to "No wrap - bottom of <body>".)

Also great is Carl Sagan's explanation of how the ancient Greeks knew the Earth was round and calculated its circumference over 2,000 years ago, which can segue to rocket science via Kerbal Space Program and machine learning.

It would be nice to draw possible career paths now and it appears that modeling is at the frontier of the landscape/math tree:

I conceive of mathematics as a fantastic citrus tree: the three main branches of oranges, limes, and lemons representing the major fields of algebra, geometry, and analysis. Each part of the upper canopy takes advantage of what is below it. Thus, number theory has two great approaches, one algebraic and the other analytic. Topology makes use of all three fields, as does the very different field of mathematical modeling.

All trees have woody parts, foliage, and fruit. The trunk and branches absorb water and nutrients from the soil. The foliage absorbs energy from the sun, using it to convert the nutrients to usable food, and allowing the tree to grow. The fruit allows the tree to reproduce. I have represented the foundations of mathematics as the trunk of the tree, the support and food supply. The foliage and fruit could represent the two aspects of pure and applied mathematics: which is which, do you think? - Margie Hale, Professor of Mathematics, Emeritus

Even if people decide math isn't for them, their computers can still use it to save the world or make ever-changing art.

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A person doesnt really need to know all of the why in math only what relates to them. Teach people how it relates to them like providing real world examples (for example determining the height of a tree). Show them that you can do cool stuff with math. As far as understanding, be open to tutor a student through something. Generally too though, you never appreciate that you have learned something till after you have taken the course. During the course, it can feel like slave labor. And one last thing, show your enthusiasm and the students will be encouraged to be positive as well. Unfortunately, math is not a well viewed subject with high school students.

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• "And one last thing, show your enthusiasm and the students will be encouraged to be positive as well." I disagree with this. Sometimes an overenthusiastic teacher can make matters worse because it can make a student feel like the teacher doesn't understand why they don't like maths and/or doesn't sympathise with them. E.g. the teacher stands there saying "look what can be done with trees/trigonometry, isn't it great?" and the student is sat there thinking "no, this is hell, I'd rather be doing anything else right now, please make this less painful". – Pharap 2 days ago

Mathematics is a very beautiful subject that is being taught in a totally wrong way, causing it to be perceived as a very boring and ugly subject. One of the biggest problems with math education is the totally flawed idea that one has to focus almost exclusively on the elementary basics and make sure these are mastered 100% before one can move in to the next level. No other subject is taught in this way, although physics comes close and we see the same sort of problems with that subject too.

Imagine that we would teach language in the same way as math. Then children would not read books, write essays etc. in school. They would instead learn lots and lots of grammar, exceptions to the grammar rules etc., and after several years still not have progressed far enough to apply what they've learned to simple conversations.

Music taught in this way would degenerate to practicing playing simple notes on musical instruments over and over again, never to move toward playing an actual piece of music. That would be considered to be "advanced university level music", and you need to first have mastered the basics good enough to qualify for that. There would be no better way to make children hate music class!

So, how can we best remedy the problem with math teaching? I.m.o., the best way is to design a new curriculum that is based on using the tools children like to play with. Computers should be used a lot more. The best way for children to learn mathematics with pleasure is by teaching them computer programming. In trials it has been shown that primary school children have no problems learning to code in languages like C++.

Instead of subjecting children to boring math problems, one can give them assignments where they have to write code to tackle a problem. They'll then be exposed to the rigorous mathematical logic at a far younger age, and yet they'll have a lot of fun. Most of the the feedback they get when they make a mistake will come quite promptly from their own computers, when the compiler complains about errors. The children working on a project will then both practice their logical reasoning skills and yet not get bored by having to do that, as their goal isn't to get to just any code that the compiler will accept, but to finish the project they are working on.

Then, mathematics as we traditionally learn it does need to be presented differently so that it can be presented in this context. For example, instead of introducing calculus via smooth curves, integration as area under a curve etc., one can just as well introduce this topic via coarse graining. Unlike the concepts use in traditional calculus teaching, children encounter coarse graining all the time. Every time they look at a picture on their computer screens, they are looking at a coarse grained representation of the data that makes up the picture.

Limits are then about computing properties of data in a scaling limit, and calculus is about doing commutations directly with the quantities defined in the scaling limit. This way of introducing calculus is i.m.o. not just easier to master, it's also more consistent with what the continuum really is. It's not fundamental, it's an artifact of having taken a prior scaling limit.

This is something that can be obvious to five-year-olds zooming into a smooth pictures and then seeing pixels. In contrast, we are indoctrinated by the wrong idea about a fundamental continuum, and we then need to unlearn this and do computations properly when Nature tells us we're making a mistake, see e.g. here on page 12:

Often, authors forget to mention the first, very important, step in this logical procedure: replace the classical field theory one wishes to quantize by a strictly finite theory.