On beauty and elegance in education

In his book ‘Fearful Symmetry: the search for beauty in modern physics’, Anthony Zee describes how Einstein displayed a supreme disinterest in any proposed formula or solution, no matter how accurate it might be, that he considered ugly.

“As soon as an equation seemed to him to be ugly, he really rather lost interest in it and could not understand why somebody else was willing to spend much time on it. He was quite convinced that beauty was a guiding principle in the search for important results in theoretical physics.”

Today (13 Aug 2014), amongst the usual ugly headlines of death, destruction and disease, Maryam Mirzakhani is being celebrated as the first woman to have been awarded the prestigious Fields Medal – the Nobel Prize for mathematicians. Her work – as described by those who have some grasp of her achievements – has a “breathtaking scope, is technically superb and boldly ambitious”. She herself describes mathematics as full of “beauty and elegance”.

Now, I’d hate to think that beauty and elegance is the sole preserve of mathematicians dealing, like Mirzakhani, in esoteric fields such as complex geodesics, transcendental objects, and differential geometry. I’d argue that we all need at least a bit of beauty and elegance in our lives and work, and we certainly can see people striving for it (though many┬ájust don’t care) in many areas: whether it’s the presentation of food, the design of buildings and spaces, the arrangement of an exhibition, the movement of a dancer across the stage, the order and rhythm of words on a page.

So, why not strive for some beauty and elegance in education and in the curricula and learning experiences we design for our students? Yes, it’s often messy and a bit (or very) chaotic. But just as the mathematics of chaos have a certain underpinning beauty and elegance, we – as ‘architects of education’ – should strive to construct and compose learning and teaching experiences that flow and connect in ways that have a certain beauty and elegance about them. It’s not easy, but surely worth the effort.