What Is Math?

Jon Seibert

When I was going through school, I always gravitated toward mathematics (and math-based science classes). I never really thought about what math actually is, only that, well, I liked it. As long as my grades were good, I didn’t really pause to consider what the numbers stood for. I already had some idea of the various math disciplines: in geometry we worked with shapes, in algebra we solved for x, and in calculus we did derivatives. This all related back to numbers, so math must be the study of numbers. Right?

After spending some time teaching math, I find that definition is similar to calling literature the study of the alphabet. In literature it is true that letters are essential to the writing process and that they work only when put in certain combinations. But a piece of literature is far more than the sum of its letters. These symbols are merely the cypher for metaphors, hyperbole, and all the other devices that further the author’s aims.

We use numbers (and, yes, some letters) as the alphabet of mathematics. The way we arrange them, combine them, break them down, and manipulate them tells a story. The story illuminates patterns and relationships. The relationships are then used to describe subjects as diverse as engineering and baseball. When you hear that a first baseman has a .300 batting average, the number matters only if you know the story behind it and the patterns of other baseball players. This leads to my favorite definition of mathematics: the study of patterns.

Perhaps it is through the lens of patterns that math can transcend the procedures that have come to define it. While an algorithm gives one path to an answer, exploring the patterns of a math problem allows multiple avenues to reach a solution. This can give students opportunities to interpret a problem before making their conclusion. After all, when we teach our students their ABCs we expect them to one day write their own papers and poems. In teaching our students their 123s, shouldn’t we support the same creativity?

Jon Seibert is a professional services coordinator for MLC.