Coaching Resource# The True Link Between Learning Math and Creativity

September 20, 2021

*By Lillie Therieau *

Are you a math person or an art person? Left brain or right brain?

Do you love the stable logic of numbers or are you partial to the subjective possibilities of the creative arts?

These are categories that we get thrown into at a young age. All it takes is a burgeoning fascination with painting or storytelling, or a youthful love of bugs, tornadoes, or multiplication. We’re lumped into one or the other, and told it’s where we belong.

For most people, this split happens before first grade rolls around. It happens before we have any real chance to notice how math and science are linked to creative subjects.

STEM subjects require an enormous amount of creativity and creative subjects require logical thinking--and yes--even math!

It takes creativity to solve problems and think outside of the box to search for new solutions. Math is the basic, initial language that we use to start problem-solving. It’s a simple way of conveying complex problems and working towards the solution. Creativity is required along the way.

Science uses math and adds new language to solve even more complex problems. Advanced math works in the same way. The basic language of math that we all learn in school is simply built up even further. The same dynamics are still at play. Complicated math and science require creativity and an artistic sensibility.

When it comes to art or music, math and science are intimately linked as well. Scales, notes, and music theory are governed by the rules of sound and physics. Art is increasingly digital and relies on a robust slew of mathematical and coding skills to execute. Storytelling requires a strong sense of internal organization and logic.

If you're a creative person and you have more language available to you, does that somehow stifle your creativity?

Or does it expand it?

As a society, we’re too set in our ways of thinking about math and creativity. We limit the opportunities and infinite possibilities that we could open up if we didn’t corral young students into one camp at the expense of the other.

We give students an easy out. If you aren’t a “math person”, you get a pass. You don’t have to try very hard, because you are given the perfect excuse from the beginning. You can just smile, shrug, and say that you’re more of a right-brain person.

Although the right brain/left brain model is a useful way to understand psychology and the layout of the human brain, it’s not good for much else. We don’t get to simply choose one hemisphere to work on and one to leave alone.

We use both hemispheres of our brain every day, at the same time, to solve problems, do daily tasks, and consider new information. We’re integrated beings, needing both logic and creativity to survive and thrive.

The folks in history who are truly gifted, those who are remembered as a “genius”, have thought beyond this dichotomy and looked at what they do in a whole new light. They use multidisciplinary thinking, drawing from sources outside the strict boundaries of their specialized fields.

Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity has an element of the fantastical and certainly required an enormous amount of creative problem-solving. Johannes Vermeer’s paintings are so celebrated because of his incredibly precise mathematical understanding of three-dimensional space and perspective. Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory required months and years of careful observation, sketching, and imagining the transformation of his famous finches.

Think about it! If a math person truly lacked creativity, they couldn’t think on their feet, solve new problems, or synthesize disparate ideas.

Each of us possesses an innate ability to use math and logic, at the same time that we use creativity and imagination. When the idea of left and right brain is used to separate math people from creatives, we lose more than we think.

Students are stifled and discouraged from blending these aspects of their cognitive abilities. They learn that STEM and creative subjects have nothing to do with each other, and internalize this mutual exclusivity.

Internalizing this message tells students that they don’t need to try to learn math if they aren’t math people. As creative people, they won’t have to use math or science in their adult lives. When they devalue math and science, they devote less attention to them. In turn, they get worse grades and fall behind in true comprehension. Then, they remind themselves that it doesn’t matter because they don’t need math or science. It’s a vicious cycle that reinforces itself!

We are all capable of using our left and right brain sensibilities to do amazing things. It is empowering to realize that we don’t have to confine ourselves to one or the other.

Beyond that, it more fully prepares students for the diversity of skills that the complex professional world will demand of them.

As the world changes and becomes more complicated and connected, most professions require a variety of tools and strengths that they did not in the past. Even STEM-focused jobs like engineering, accounting, or finance overwhelmingly cite creativity as the most desirable skill amongst new hires. Competition and technological advances mean that folks working in STEM need to be able to think on their feet and adapt to new circumstances quickly.

Creatives have to learn to use new and evolving software, keep track of their finances, and even code their websites. They have to understand how to run their own business, negotiate deals, and stay up to date with new digital platforms and technologies. Even more pressing, climate change requires each of us to understand science and how the world around us is rapidly shifting.

How can we counteract the myth of the math person vs. the creative person?

It’s quite simple.

As parents and educators, we have to stop introducing and consciously or unconsciously enforcing the split. We have to feed our young students’ intellectual curiosity with both math and science, and the creative arts.

It’s also critical that we explain the importance of both sets of skills in students’ later lives. We can encourage them to take all of their subjects seriously and think of them as parts of a unified whole of knowledge and skills that they will need in the future.

If math is tricky for your child, or they feel as though art doesn’t come naturally, there are lots of solutions. Using visual techniques to explain math can be a very helpful approach, and drawing out problems (I.e. for 2+2 draw two butterflies, and then two more flies in. How many are there now?) as you solve them together.

For math-inclined kids, focus on the natural math represented in nature and on the mathematical concept of perspective. Or, you can use science to make art more approachable by categorizing different bugs or plants you draw after seeing them on a walk!

Elephant Learning is also a powerful tool for combining creativity, visual aids, and learning math. Student users will see the story of a math problem play out in front of them visually, and are then able to try and solve the problem. It’s a great way to help a creatively focused kid get invested and interested in math.

Start the process early, and show your child that they are capable of anything they put their minds to!