Story telling in mathematics

I tell a lot of stories when I teach, but not generally stories about my life or past stories of students. I use story-telling as a vehicle for explaining concepts that are difficult to understand when abstracted in symbols. 

For example, when I talk about sums of arithmetic sequences, I start with the story of the legendary mathematical genius Gauss as a kid.

Supposedly when Gauss was a kid, he was given the task of adding up the numbers from 1 to 100. His teacher expected this task to take a while, but Gauss finished it in seconds. He apparently was the only student to write down the correct response, 5050. What Gauss did was to group the additions from 1 to 100 like so:

1   + 100
2   +   99
3   +   98
50 +   51

He noticed that each of these added up to 101, and that there are 50 such pairs. 50 x 101 = 5050, the answer Gauss came up with.

When I share this story with students, they tend to remember the process Gauss went through and they identify with him, not because he’s so smart, but because he bests his teacher which is a story a lot of students would like to believe. They remember the story because our minds are adapted for remembering stories.

Leading students through the more abstract proof of the sum of an arithmetic sequence formula is a lot easier when they understand where it comes from. I find story-telling in mathematics is an easy way to turn an abstract concept into something kids get and in my experience practically everything in mathematics comes from a story.

Want to explain infinite series? Tell the story of Achilles and the Tortoise. Want students to understand distance vs time graphs? Make sure to tell a story as you trace out the graph, particularly one with a lot of action you can pantomine.

Update: Here’s an example of a story being told in video form. 

Boat In The River — Question from Dan Meyer on Vimeo.

Multimedia can make telling the story easier, especially if the concept you want to share is complicated. Think of the pictures that you see in children’s books, and ask yourself, how much do they contribute to the telling of the story?


Story-telling is an excellent tool in mathematics education. How could you see this used in your own subject area?



  • Mark Bethune wrote:

    So true David. In fact there are many great stories to tell including Descartes fly on the ceiling and the story of St. Ives as you introduce finite sums of geometric series. As is a language, I believe that the stories, in many cases, provide a direct translation for students to help them learn the language. Other times, they are really just a bit of fun and of course if we can make learning fun, students will be more successful.

  • How about using video to help tell the story. I used 4 videos created by Dan Meyer to help students understand distance time graphs. Students LOVED it.

  • David Wees wrote:

    That’s a great point Terry. I do sometimes use video to tell the story, but I forgot about it as an alternative to a more traditional story. I might try and find one of those Dan Meyer videos and include it this blog post! Thanks for the observation.

  • I think this needs more pictures

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