I write this before Mathemafrica publicly launches. I want to give a little background about myself, what I am doing now, and what I see as the potential for Mathemafrica.
I am originally from England, Oxford to be precise. From a very early age I was fascinated with the way the world worked, being that pestering, questioning child who won’t take ‘just because’ for an answer. I was very lucky to discover early on that not only were there fascinating questions to be asked, but answers when you knew the right places to look. I was lucky to have resources at my fingertips and museums just down the road where there were mysteries to be solved on every trip. My curiosity was not sated by reading books and so I went on to study physics at University. After four years and still hungry for more I thought that a PhD might finally put a stop to my questioning, but of course that only added to the arsenal of tools at my disposal for answering them. My PhD was in an area of theoretical physics called String Theory, which I may well write about on here at some point. It is a highly mathematical arena of physics and one which has itself created new mathematical directions and answers over the last few decades.
My PhD in the UK took me eventually to Beijing, China, and to a position as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Theoretical Physics, in the Chinese Academy of Sciences. My two years in China were simply amazing, from many points of view and I wrote extensively on my experiences on my blog at jonstraveladventures. My position in China lead to a position in Spain for three years, then in Germany for two years and, after having a six month period in Australia, I arrived, in July 2013, in the gorgeous city of Cape Town.
After seven years as a postdoctoral researcher I had found myself in the amazing position of joining the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, at The University of Cape Town. A place that I had visited a few times on my travels before but had never in my wildest dreams imagined myself working full time, but here I was, in a new city, with a new feel, new cultures and languages, a history as rich as any I had experienced before and dozens of issues that I had never before had to contend with.
And two weeks after arriving I found myself facing a huge lecture theatre with 200 first year students, one semester into what is renowned as the scariest course in the university. MAM1000 as it is so named is a first year mathematics course aimed at those who will continue to study mathematics at higher levels. I stood there, notes in hand, ready to tackle the task of getting the mathematical concepts in my head into the heads of those in front of me.
To be completely honest with you, while I felt that I made a good connection with the students, that first lecture was probably awfully confusing for them. I had pitched the level wrong and found myself talking about subtleties of integral expressions which I realised after the fact were probably not going to be relevant for any but the most interested. As the weeks went by and the semester rolled on I learnt to pace my lectures better and learnt the level that I should be teaching at. This was not to say that the students were not able to get the concepts that I launched into on that first day, but there was simply so much to pack into the semester that it was not possible to go at the right pace, with the depth I had started off with.
Anyway, details, details. I have now been here at UCT for a year and a half and have taught my second cohort of MAM1000 students, and enjoyed it as much as I did the first time around . The challenges inherent in teaching such a course are not those that I had expected coming into it, but they are nonetheless as motivating as they are frustrating. So many of the challenges are more related to the way mathematics is seen as an entity, as a discipline, as an instrument and as a skill, than the difficulty in learning the concepts themselves.
In fact I have found that the mathematical concepts themselves are not the hard part to explain. I believe that at the end of a lecture on mathematics, expecting students to understand everything provides a false sense of security which can lead to the students not feeling the need to then go and work on the topic themselves. What I find hardest to get across is the way (or perhaps just a way) that one can master the subject. I have spoken with many students now and been told time and again that at high school in South Africa mathematics is a passive subject. You arrive at the lesson, you listen to the teacher, you absorb the information and then, come exam time, you implement what was picked up as you sat and listened and took notes, and you could do very well like this if the teacher explained the topic with sufficient clarity. I must state immediately that this perspective is very much a second hand one, and so I would be very keen to hear other people’s opinions about the level at which mathematics is expected to be understood at high schools here in South Africa. I am also aware that teaching at UCT I have a very specific cross-section of South African students and this may well not be the general consensus on high school mathematics.
Mathematics for me is a subject which must be learned actively. While it is important that a teacher explains clearly the fundamentals of the topic and goes through examples so that these fundamentals can be understood, mastery comes by sitting down and working through example after example after example, slowly building the structure of understanding around the basement of the fundamentals which have been taught to you.
Anyway, there is much to be said about this, and much that I have still to learn, but one of my discoveries so far has been that the transition between mathematics as a passive subject and as an active one is one of the greatest hurdles which students face, and this hurdle can be so disheartening, especially for those who have sailed through high school maths, that they are led to believe, by their first set of test scores, that they are simply not clever enough to excel at university level mathematics – something which, 99% of the time I truly do not believe. One of the other hurdles is simply that the relevance of mathematics, as well as the sheer beauty of it is something that is often overlooked and these two, I believe, are a small part of what can motivate people to strive to become great at this wonderful subject.
And this, in one respect, is where Mathemafrica comes in. However, at this time I think it best to give you a break and I shall return in a blog post soon to talk about how I see Mathemafrica as a powerful platform to spread the word about the beauty and relevance of mathematics.