The “Bad Drawings” Approach to Math

The “Bad Drawings” Approach to Math

NOTE: I’m from the U.S., and will use the many-centuries-old abbreviation “math.” You Brits are welcome to continue using your newfangled, one-century-old alternative “maths.”

Every math lover hears it: “Oh, I’m bad at math.”

I get why people say it. Math can put people ill at ease. It can make them feel stupid. By disavowing your own mathematical ability, you cut the conversation short. You avoid the painful encounter with the thing you feel inept at.

That’s why, when I write about math, I put my worst foot forward. I always include my inept, stick-figure illustrations.

The drawings help explain the concepts, too. But a big part of their purpose is to put the reader at ease. Anyone who draws this bad can’t be a threat!

When the drawings are bad – and the artist is so obviously out of his comfort zone – you can forget about who’s good at what, and just enjoy exploring new ideas.

I continued the approach with my second book, Change is the Only Constant: The Wisdom of Calculus in a Madcap World.

In this book, the math got heavier, but the approach stayed light. The U.S. sees calculus as the culmination of secondary math education. The subject has an intimidating reputation. But I hope that my silly pictures can put the reader at ease.

I think there’s a lesson here for every teacher of any intimidating subject: don’t be afraid to show a little humanity. We’re all learners, and the road to expertise is paved with a million mistakes. (In my case, those mistakes are silly-looking, long-necked stick figures.) There’s no better way to invite folks into the project of learning than to model it ourselves.

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