Mathematics is a difficult subject and we should not conceal it – Cedric Villani

MUMBAI : Known for his bold and stylish dressing sense, French mathematician Cedric Villani is also called the ‘Lady Gaga of French Mathematicians’. In Mumbai for a public lecture, the Fields Medal winner tells The Free Press Journal that Mathematics is no child’s play!

A lot of students find Mathematics a subject difficult. Is it really a difficult subject or do we make it so?

This is a question people ask me in more or less any country in the world. So, yes it is really difficult. Secondly, I think we should not conceal this from students. Maths is tricky, that’s it. It is a challenge, go for it. That’s why it is interesting. To understand Maths you have to work. It is a sport. You want to take the exercise, go ahead and do it. Exercise is something that is difficult to understand. If it doesn’t hurt your brain you will make no progress.

That is in contrast to what is generally said, that the problem lies in the way Maths is taught in schools.

It is definitely not easy. In high school we learn about functions. From the beginning of conceptual mathematics with Greeks, till the definition of function, it took maybe 25 centuries. So who will say that a function is easy to understand? It took many, many brains to find the relevant concepts. It is not the issue of computations, but about understanding the objects and their meaning.

For children, is interest that could have developed into aptitude, lost in the very beginning because of our teaching methods?

Some people believe so. But since in very continent they feel the same, I doubt it. If there was a way that was easy somebody would have found it and it would have been a huge success. Everywhere in the world people are fighting about what is the best way to teach Mathematics and still nobody has really found a way that is easy. You can do games, it’s nice. It entertains. But it will not do everything. You still have to go through exercises. Exercises are not about doing the computations, but understanding. It requires aptitude. Many people have this aptitude. Many people think they do not, but in fact they have. But it takes some self-confidence to say, ‘I can do it!’ as opposed to saying ‘No, I can never do it’. It is difficult, but when you do it, you are so proud. The same way, understanding and reasoning is also difficult. Let me say that I don’t know of any important notion in Mathematics that I could understand without doing some exercise. Mathematics is the science of truth. What is right and what is wrong is the science of reasoning. The core of mathematical education is to be able to understand what the mathematical proof or argument is. You don’t know about the Pythagoras Theorem, no interest, it will not be of any use. You have to understand why it is true and how to prove it.

How can schools develop interest towards the subject in children?

Some kids are very different, you know. Some will be very happy to go into books and look for help, but for most people usually it is about the teacher-student relationship. It is the role of the teachers. We need teachers who say, here is a thing and I want you to understand this.

How do we deal with the lack of passionate teachers?

This is a big problem and India is not the only country facing it. Even when the programme or curriculum is good, if the teacher is not passionate, it is very difficult. But nowadays, there are other ways to do Mathematics in a way that can be entertaining. There are clubs, the internet, forums. My own kids, when I saw them most passionate about Mathematics, it was not when I explained them something, but when they were competing with other kids. It is a social thing that works.

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