The importance of a good story

“In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” (Douglas Adams, 1980). Do we have your attention? Once upon a time, men and women decided to tell and then write stories to explain the world to the next generations. The goal of these stories was to explain the world through the means of gods and heroes facing moral dilemmas, and the audience would learn a lesson from the fate of the protagonists. Nowadays, anyone can write – or tell – stories, but many underestimate their impact. How can stories engage pupils when they have to answer math exercises?

Telling stories: a quick overview of the history of humanity

Do you know how old the first stories are? Well, it depends on what can be considered as such. For example, the cave paintings that have been found in the south of France (such as in the Chauvet cave) date back to 37.000 years before our time! Although the meaning of the pictures is currently unknown – and will probably forever remain a mystery – they can be considered the first “written” testimony of the art of storytelling. The oral storytelling tradition could not be recorded, but the first trace of a written story is generally acknowledged as being the “Epic of Gilgamesh”, written more than 5.000 years ago. Since then, many other stories have been told, mixing historical, religious and mythological elements: Homer’s “Iliad”, Julius Caesar’s “Gallic Wars”, the Bible, etc. The primary goal of these stories was actually a pedagogical one: they were used to teach history or religion and, most importantly, could be used to teach some materials to a population who could not read.

Novels and other recreative stories with little to no philosophical commentary are actually quite recent, but the first examples that we can find are tales of travels and experiences of unknown animals and buildings. They aimed to be informative, of course, but also gave the audience room for imagination: the outside world is described as full of wonders, but only a few brave explorers will be allowed to look at them.

Figure 1 Travel, Ar130405 (Pixabay)

Where maths and stories meet

The VisitMath project aims to engage pupils by anchoring mathematics into reality, but the addition of stories to the tours provide a more fun approach to the visits. Pupils are led to help a character – either an inhabitant from the city they visit or a legendary figure of the area – complete a quest, using both their mathematical and observation skills. At the end of the story, they are rewarded by the character who praises their abilities. Just like the first stories, those developed in this project aim to use a written tradition to pass on knowledge to the next generations.

If we were to summarize what stories are, they would be a tale of a problematic situation (that appears in the first pages) that needs to be solved, which already sort of looks like a mathematic exercise: the pupils are confronted with a problem that they need to answer with their skills and knowledge. This project can be seen as a combination of the best parts of mathematics and storytelling, where the magic of a good tale meets the mystery of numbers.

Figure 2 La Navigation, Placidplace (Pixabay)

If you want to integrate stories into your mathematics classes, be sure to check out the Resource page of the VisitMath website: there will be plenty of updates in the upcoming months!

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