Why does a letter always arrive at its destination? Opening up a living space between problem and solution in math education – Susan Gerofsky (1996)


The author criticises the tendency in mathematics education to focus on problem and quick solution, and suggests an alternative approach that allows for more space for contemplation. Lacan’s aphorism “a letter always arrives at its destination” is examined with an interpretation that refers to the closure of death and highlights the idea of a living space before a conclusion is reached.

Language used by students speaking about getting to grips with a math problem is examined.

school maths classes work at the level of “taking problems literally”, fixing meanings and binding them in time, specifically to avoid the recurrence of the Real, the ambiguous, the messy space of living. The desire to solve or dissolve the problem without allowing a space for play involves shutting down the space to think mathematically, to struggle with the ambiguities of the Real, to have patience and courage, and to know as a mathematician that no problem is ever more than provisionally solved.

If we treated maths problems as we do parables, for example, and attended to their multiple associations, resonances and paradoxes, we could live with the problematic and engage with it on many levels simultaneously, before invoking a provisional and temporary closure.

The focus on a ‘right answer’ is examined as inherently satisfying but limited.


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