Friday, March 22, 2013

Allowing Unexpected: Creativity in Your Classroom

These are some excerpts from my talk today in Western Illinois University annual Teachers conference and also links to some aditional material.
In an ordinary mathematics class, the program is fairly clear cut. We have problems to solve, or a method of calculation to explain, or a theorem to prove. The main work to be done will be in writing, usually on the blackboard. If the problems are solved, the theorems proved, or the calculations completed, then teacher and class know that they have completed daily task. Is this teaching how to think mathematically? Getting to know new mathematical facts and there applications - it is creating new knowledge in students heads - but is it creative thinking?

Everybody at least once has had an experience when you have to talk in a language which is not native for you and it is hard to find correct words to express what are you thinking. Mathematics also has its own language (may be languages?) and we have to listen to another person carefully to understand what he/she wants to say. Are we patient enough with our students? How do we help students to express their ideas in a "foreign" language? We can understand a person talking even with mistakes if we understand the ideas the person is talking about. And no damage is done to these ideas because of some grammar mistakes. Why do we want mathematics to be an exception? Why is formal language so sacred? 

            Here is a quote from George Orwell:

 It is instructive sight to see a waiter going into a hotel dining room. As he passes the door a sudden change comes over him. The set of his shoulders alters; all the dirt and hurry and irritation have dropped off in an instant. He glides over the carpet, with a solemn, priest-like air... he entered the dining room and sailed across it, dish in hand, graceful as a swan.

  What does this quote tell us about the teaching mathematics? What is the purpose of separating front from back, kitchen from dining hall? It is not only to keep customers from interfering with the cooking. It is also to keep them from knowing too much about cooking.
The front and the back of mathematics are not physical locations like dining room and the kitchen. The front is mathematics in its finished form - lectures, textbooks, journals. The back is mathematics among working mathematicians. Which mathematics we are teaching to our students? Of course, the front one. Why? Because we feel safe there. We are teaching facts which are a priori acknowledged and if that happened more than 100 years ago then it is even safer. Looking over mathematics curriculum you are teaching have you pondered about the question which is the newest mathematics we are teaching? Are we telling our students that mathematics is changing all the time even that it is one of the oldest human activities?

Keith Devlin in American Scientist compares learning mathematics to learning how to play piano:
Just as music is created and enjoyed within the mind, so too is mathematics created and carried out (and by many of us enjoyed) in the mind. At its heart, mathematics is a mental activity—a way of thinking—one that over several millennia of human history has proved to be highly beneficial to life and society. In both music and mathematics, the symbols are merely static representations on a flat surface of dynamic mental processes. Just as the trained musician can look at a musical score and hear the music come alive in her or his head, so too the trained mathematician can look at a page of symbolic mathematics and have that mathematics come alive in the mind. So why is it that many people believe mathematics itself is symbolic manipulation? And if the answer is that it results from our classroom experiences, why is mathematics taught that way? I can answer that second question. We teach mathematics symbolically because, for many centuries, symbolic representation has been the most effective way to record mathematics and pass on mathematical knowledge to others.

 A necessary (though certainly not sufficient) condition for significant teaching is the provision of emphases; if everything is important then nothing is important. - Abe Schenitzer

1964 book The Act of Creation ArthurKoestler attempted to develop the general theory of human creativity. His concept of bisociation has been adopted, generalized and formalized by cognitive linguists Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, who developed it into conceptual blending. Koestler defined  bisociation as “the creative leap [or insight], which connects previously unconnected frames of reference and makes us experience reality on several planes at once.” How to realize it? Koestler offered a suggestion in the form of a triptych, which consists of three panels…indicating 3 domains of creativity which shade into each other without sharp boundaries: Humor, Discovery, and Art.

The first is intended to make us laugh, the second make us understand, the third make us marvel Or for short: Ha-ha-ha! – Aha! – Ah!

But there is another word – Oh! – when things go wrong. If math is to be a creative subject then we have to regard it as a subject where it is ok to get things WRONG. If you have never made mistakes, you are never discovering anything new.
As Tomass Edison once said – I made a lot of mistakes. Later I patented most of them.

Mathematics is not about numbers, equations, computations, or algorithms: it is about understanding. - William Thurston
If you haven't seen yet then do join almost 10 million viewers of  Sir Ken RobÄ«nson's talk
 Changing Education Paradigms. Another one of his talks is The World We Explore.

Some more interesting talks
Fun to Imagine:

Are Mathematicians Creative?

What Mathematicians Actually Do?

I Want to Be a Mathematician:

Andrey Cherkasov Math Jokes collection

Feynman and Computing:

Mysteries of Mathematical Universe - talk from World Science Festival

Mathmagic with Arthur Benjamin


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