Friday, 19 February 2016

Art for Maths' Sake

Four years ago my Year 5 class made factor trees. We inverted the usual upside-down tree:
We made the prime factors into flowers, and we added a bit of treeishness and colour:

There was a whole forests of factor trees. Someone had the idea that, as 1 is not prime, but not like other composite numbers, it could be a bird:
It was something I've repeated with my Year 4 classes in the last few years, sometimes making the trees in different media:
There's always a tension for me with maths-and-arty activities. They can be not as artistic as an art lesson, and not as mathsy as a maths lesson. And with so much real mathematical and artistic exploration to do, we don't want to do anything that's less than best. 

But sometimes, taking a bit more time with appearances, can make things clearer. Sometimes it can let you re-approach something that needs revisiting in a new form. And as in this case, sometimes it gives you something that doesn't look plain to leave up on the wall for a while. We went further with it, we used it as an opportunity to share what we'd been learning with the younger classes that passed by our display.
The immediate aim of this kind of event is that the students will have to revisit their learning as explainers, finding their own words for what they have created. There is of course the chance that the trees might intrigue some of the listeners too!

Something else - an unusual thing - happened with these trees recently. Two artists Charlie Youle and Bevis Martin came across our trees on a trawl through children's maths images, and made sculptures based on them! 
a "thought flower"
I've posted about their exhibition here.
meeting the artists


  1. Wow Simon! It's fantastic to see how your love for math has blossomed into something much more. I love the sculptures you've shared here. You must be tickled.

    1. The whole experience was wonderful, Graham! And the artists might come into school and work with us at some point.

  2. Hello, I am an Elementary Education major with an emphasis in mathematics, and I found this blog quite intriguing! In my elementary math education class, we are discussing various methods of making math visual and combining math with art, and this blogpost fit right in. The forest of factor trees is an excellent idea, and I love how you brought up the point about the math-and-artsy activities often not being as artsy as an art lesson and math as a math lesson. This is an aspect of these types of lessons I was always concerned about. How you expanded on the idea and had the students display the work and teach to younger students, was such a great idea. I enjoyed this post a lot, thank you for an interesting read!

    1. Thanks Chris. How this plays out depends on the whole economy of learning aside from the content itself - the engagement, the attractiveness, the strikingness and memorability - all sortsof things.

      Early on in this blog, I posted about the number art of Jaime Tatalab, a man who really didn't like maths until he came to make art based on it:

      Jaime Tatalab hated maths until invited to create some numbers. These numbers. Then he found out that this aversion came from far away. "I discovered that it was a hate acquired by the way they taught me," says the designer.
      "These numbers are a truce with them and I thought that everything is on the forms. We can learn complicated things if we approach them in a simple and playful and playful way."

      Not everyone is going to find a way to engage through symbols and algorithms - and as these are only one expression of maths, why should they?

      So, I like to use stories, history, movement, the visual (a lot), drama even, to approach the subject.

      I am, though, very conscious of the time element. I don't want to spend time on colouring in or cutting out and sticking or suchlike unless I think there's going to be a real benefit.