Number games in Nancy

Izmir’s pioneering Merdiven Project and conquering the fear of mathematics

By Cornucopia | June 4, 2015


The International conference Science & You 2015 is a gathering of 1,000 scholars, researchers and science communicators from 50 countries, hosted this year by the French city of Nancy, and organised by Unesco, Euroscience and the Université de Lorraine. Cornucopia is proud to be sponsoring the participation of Nurten Alpaslan’s truly remarkable Izmir-based Merdiven Project. ‘Ours is the only project from Turkey. We hope to dismantle preconceptions of Turkey as being “behind in science”,’ writes Nurten Hanım, a retired maths teacher who has devised groundbreaking ways to make mathematics accessible to everyone.

Maths without numbers... Nurten Alpaslan, founder of the pioneering Merdiven Project, puts Cornucopia through a warming-up mind excercise with Quarto, an elaborate 3D-version of noughts and crosses – a single game can take up to 20 minutes and end with a draw

Back in 1987, Nurten Alpaslan was one of 19 Turkish teachers selected to study abroad. After 26 years teaching maths in schools around the country, she retired in 2011 to realise her dream of founding the Merdiven Project and Science Centre in Izmir’s Karşıyaka district. Listed as one of Goldman Sachs–World Bank’s ‘10,000 Women Entrepreurs’, she was instrumental in bringing the International Mathematics Exhibition to Izmir in 2013, an event that ‘changed the way 48,000 visitors looked at mathematics’.

During the opening evening of Science & You 2015, the scientific committee presented the Nancy Declaration. Firmly oriented towards freedom of speech, it sets out to define the scientist’s role in the common good and the free dissemination of knowledge.

Merdiven is unlike any educational insititute you‘ve ever seen: no desks, no blackboard, no computers  – and there are no tests or homework. Visitors are greeted by Nurten Hanım's own ‘declaration of liberty’: ‘Everyone who steps into the Merdiven Project and Science Centre is free to enjoy themselves, to question, to object, to talk openly to the teachers on any subject they wish, and to understand and love maths.’ As the ever-refreshing sourtimes dictionary website explains: ‘Children don’t simply learn four formulae by heart; the idea is to instil a system of thinking mathematically. They teach children to understand maths through games. A  wonderful project.’ The centre’s reputation has spread, with students now coming every summer from Istanbul and Ankara. The minimum age is 5. There is no maximum. ‘Because our work strengthens memory and concentration,’ Nurten Hanım says, ‘it plays a big role in preventing Alzheimer’s and dementia-related illnesses. It also improves problem-solving skills and planning.’

Nurten Alpaslan at Science & You 2015 in Nancy this week

According to Nurten Hanım, ‘students in Turkey are naturally interested in mathematics and science but generally unsuccessful’, a state of affairs reflected in the latest survey by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which places Turkey 44th out of 65 countries. ‘We believe the problem is not the students but the system – misguided methods create a fear of maths.’ From then on it is downhill. ‘Problems with mathematics cause bright young people to choose the wrong careers,’ Nurten Hanım explains. ‘Doing work they don’t enjoy brings dissatisfaction. Dissatisfied people are unproductive – and a loss to the economy. It is not only academic advantages that children gain from Mathematics for Everybody. Children with developed problem-solving and analytical skills learn to look at events differently. This has a direct impact on human relations.’

‘We teachers should never forget that if a student says, “I can’t understand,” it isn’t because they can’t understand, but because we can’t explain. If we can help them to develop a system of thinking mathematically, everyone will gain a grasp of mathematics that enables them to achieve their goals effectively. This is what got me going. In a system focused solely on exams, I created my own curriculum. Everyone says: “you are fighting with windmills, you are walking into the wind”. I just keep walking.’

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