Walking into any of our mathematics classrooms at NMS you will be greeted by a scene moving in a spectrum between these two ends:
In the first one, students sit in a neatly organized class, with rows of tables and chairs facing the teacher. The students have their textbook, notebook and pencil case on the table. Maybe they have their calculators as well. At the beginning of the lesson, the teacher will spend some time at the board explaining some new rule and working out a couple of examples. Then the students will proceed to work through some assigned examples to consolidate that rule. They will work alone in silence or with their closest classmate. If they need some help, they will ask the teacher, who will approach to support them in their task. We will call this the “traditional approach”.
Passing the second one, the scene appears much (!) more chaotic. Students sit around a couple of tables discussing how to solve a problem that is likely not very similar to others that they tried before. Maybe they stand at the board arguing which the best way to proceed is or investigating in front of the computer. Occasionally, the teacher approaches to observe, ask one group to explain their findings to the rest of the class or give the group a short mini-lecture about a particular concept or method. We will call this the “problem-solving approach”.
Often, teachers following the traditional approach are accused of just drilling their students in basic procedural skills that they will not use in their life outside the school, while teachers focusing on problem solving will be criticized as not being able to keep silence and order in the class, not giving the students basic skills or only delivering in the end a kind of wishy-washy content. But neither of them is remotely correct. Rather, in our school you will find a great team of motivated teachers - coming from 9 different educational contexts, with different backgrounds and different experiences in teaching - doing the best they can, trying to balance conceptual understanding and the vast amount of skills required by the official curricula, seriously committed to give our students opportunities to develop the ability for mathematical thinking and go beyond their dependency of basic skills and techniques. Arriving at the stage of making that transition to mathematical thinking is crucial, especially for those students aiming for the upper secondary.
What does mathematics mean for us?
We believe studying and then enjoying mathematics at school helps us become free. Maths relies on numbers, rearranging, using symmetry and calculating, and it requires effort to master such tools, but when you do, it means you can rapidly progress to tackling more interesting problems. And the other way around: struggling on problems triggers you to learn and develop techniques that become meaningful to you because you have felt the need to learn them. Maths trains our minds and teaches us to think for ourselves, which in turn will help you decide what robust knowledge is and what it is not. It helps you to rapidly identify the core issues of an unsolved problem, to recognize what is necessary, what is not rational and what can be left out. It is a mental training that helps us seek out solutions, and we need that now, more than ever.
Mathematics unites the past and the future, from the creation of abstract numbering in the cuneiform tablets from Uruk in Mesopotamia 5200 years ago, to the mathematical modeling of climate change and the destiny of the planet and human civilization. At the same time, mathematics is also, for many people, a great game – rules hanging from agreed premises, full of endless complexity, a game that only sometimes mirrors what we find in the natural world. It is both immensely useful and, by being good at it, will greatly improve the chances of you acquiring successful employment, but it is also sometimes just aesthetically pleasing, an art in itself, enormously fun and a friend for life.
The fascinating history of mathematics shows us, among many other things, that its early development has been deeply influenced by culture, rituals and religion. However, Mathematics transcends national boundaries and dispels religious, cultural, and gender-based stereotypes (although we still have a lot of work to do to build a mathematical community in which women, people of colour and other marginalised groups can thrive in their mathematical endeavours). Its universal language welcomes very diverse people who enjoy looking for patterns, attending to details, and thinking logically. Many of the greatest mathematicians are and were neuro-diverse!