If you live in a tiny house, then you will come to understand the possessions that are
essential to your life.
If you want to get at the essence of an idea, try to express it in one sentence.
The process of distilling often vast information to decide what earns the right to occupy
that small space is incredibly valuable.
So, what would be my one-line teaching philosophy? On continued reflection, I keep returning
to a statement that has been my compass as a parent:
If everything you do is done with love as the basis,
then you can make a lot of mistakes,
and things will still turn out okay.
To adapt it to teaching, interpret ‘love’ in a broader contextto include respect for individuality
and belief in each person's ability to learn and grow. This simple statement gives me the courage and flexibility to explore,
providing comfort that a sometimes unexpected result is okay.
There's a lot of mathematics out thereand many ways to travel through it.
I take my role as a guide very seriously.
Some groups have time only to glance through the
windows; others have the luxury to poke into shadowy crevices.
I always want to do more than just meet expectationsI want to give a glimpse of perhaps unexpected
beauty and a deep understanding of culture. I want those on the journey with me to want to return for more.
For almost three decades I have been refining and adjusting my teaching. However, certain concrete realizations of my beliefs have proven themselves
so universally effective that I would never teach without them, and I will explore some of these here:
Passion and Enthusiasm
It is the rare student evaluation of my teaching
that does not mention one of these three words: passion, enthusiasm, energy.
A first step in student learning is capturing their attention and keeping them alert,
and this is something I do well.
When my students smile and laugh at my unconcealed joy over having
renamed an expression in the perfect way ‘just by adding zero!’
then I know my enthusiasm was contagious. I have fun teaching, and this goes
a long ways towards my students having fun learning.
We have a serious obligation to prepare our students for the next course, for their careers,
for lifeand we need to do it in $\,n\,$ hours. One certainty is this: things will happen to alter even
the most carefully-planned syllabus. To guard against the negative consequences of events
that are out of my locus of control, I operate by these five words: out of
discipline comes flexibility. From the moment students enter a classroom, I have
rehearsed and established routines. Here are a couple examples from the beginning of a typical class:
- As students come in, they go to the side board and put up
homework problems that require discussion; if another student has the same question,
they put a checkmark next to it. By glancing at the number of checks, I readily see problems
that need attention.
- A pile of scrap paper sits by the door and students take a sheet as they enter.
As the “bell rings”, a Quick Quiz (QQ) goes on the
front board. Quizzes are graded either with a ‘1’ (one point) or an ‘N’
(Not completely correct). Points accumulated are bonus points.
The QQ gets students to class on time, and they love the tangible daily benefit for having
Anxiety can often be substantially reduced by making expectations explicit. The
methods below offer transparency for two common student concerns: What do I need to know?
What is my grade?
- Index Card Method
For every concept I teach, I start by creating a $\,4''\times 6''\,$ index card.
These become both the springboard for class discussions and the basis for a student's
own cardsthey end up with a stack that embodies every key idea.
Cards can be mixed up so learning isn't order-dependent; ones that are well understood can be taken out to focus on those that remain.
Students know that assessments will be many and variedbut every one will be an attempt
to gain an accurate reflection of their understanding of the ideas on those cards.
- Grade Sheet
Each student gets a ‘Grade Sheet’ that they maintain throughout the course.
It's simple math: their points versus total points possible.
Whenever an assessment is returned, students look
to the side board to update their Grade Sheets. They come to appreciate how a good
effort raises their grade; as the course progresses and more points are amassed, they understand the
increased difficulty in making a change. This simple ownership and clarity of one's grade has been an outstanding
Collaboration and Academic Honesty
The more ways you work with an idea, the better.
Hearing, seeing, writing, speaking, thinking, manipulating, and collaborating can
all contribute to a deeper understanding, so I encourage my students to
work with each other. However, I make this very clear: when the time comes to pass in something that is to be
graded, it must be a reflection of their own understanding, not someone else's.
Teach Students How to Teach Themselves
If you don't understand a language, then you don't have access to ideas (even simple ones)
that are expressed in that language. I don't want to just teach students mathI want to teach them how they can
teach themselves math, so they won't always need a teacher as a translator.
I wrote a little book, called One Mathematical Cat, Please! that
explores basic math language skills, and I weave these ideas into everything I do.
Share my Excitement of Math-on-the-Web
Every class I teach benefits from my web resources, created over the past decade.
Web exercises are used for review of basic skills and course-specific practice.
Until recently, a special viewing environment was required since
MathML (Math Markup Language) lacks uniform support.
However, as of August 2010, MathJax has finally made MathML accessible to
the world, and JSXGraph supplies all the dynamic graphing capabilities to complete the job
of creating world-class online math educational resources.
It's an exciting time for math-on-the-web, and my students get regular doses of this excitement.
Keep it Fun $\ldots$
Students have a life outside of my classroom. There will be
hard days, and a bit of extra fun thrown in at a moment's notice makes it easier to get back to work.
When interest is waning, I often throw in a quick math ‘Fun Fact’. There are a multitude
of free internet resources that can be used for fascinating, short mathematical digressions:
three of my favorites are Mudd Math,
Number Gossip, and WolframAlpha.
$\ldots$ and It's More Fun to Learn from Someone You Know
I let students get glimpses of who I am as a human being. When a story problem evokes a memory,
I may share it with the class. They're likely to find out that I do some of my best thinking on long walks,
and that I believe in moderation in all things (even moderation in moderation).
It's my responsibility to keep digressions shortbut when class energy is low, these little fun facts can again
restore it to full speed.
Each person has an obligation to give back to the world, and part of life's journey
is in discovering and developing those unique talents to be shared.
By giving to those in need, we receive the rich gift of being needed.
When I explore mathematical ideas with othersbe it in the classroom, one-on-one,
or via the web pages I present to the worldthen I find deep happiness.
The ongoing search for more effective ways to communicate mathematical ideas
gives meaning to my life, and my lifelong endeavor is to keep at it.