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Street Fighting Mathematics

October 13, 2010

One of my biggest issues with higher education is that, due to the publish or perish environment, many people involved with education don’t actually spend much of their time trying to provide a quality education.  Rote memorization, powerpoint-based lectures, and indeed the traditional lecture in general, have been demonstrated time and time again to be woefully inadequate when it comes to educating our youngest, brightest minds.


However, unlike many issues I’ve mentioned on this blog, this is an area where I’ve seen marked improvement in the decade or so I was involved with higher education.  As a college freshman, the traditional lecture ruled the day, and with but a few exceptions, that held true throughout my undergraduate career, and much of my graduate as well.  However, in the last few years, interest in pedagogy has seemingly exploded, with much more research being done into the techniques for better teaching, and more educators putting that research to work in the classroom.  While many still cling to the old fashioned way of doing things, there is a cadre of young people coming into the education game, passionate about teaching and armed for the first time with a great set of tools to do it right.  Assuming the other issues of the system don’t drive the most promising educators away, the proliferation of science education journal clubs, grant money for physics education research, and indeed entire departments being built around pedagogy, can only mean good things for the future of higher education.


Which brings me to today’s link.  Sanjoy Mahajan, at MIT, has put together a great book on conceptual learning and approaching mathematics from a practical, intuitive angle, instead of the dry, un-engaging, rigorous, and generally boring way it’s normally presented.  It’s a great example of some of the thinking that needs to be put into teaching – not just as a rigid structure to ram facts into students’ minds, but as a way to build a fluid, pliable framework of fundamental problem-solving skills.  While many advanced readers will be familiar with many of the topics presented in this book, such as dimensional analysis, it’s presentation of the topics feels fresh, and I believe it’s well worth a read.


And it’s free.  So check it out, straight from the source at MIT:


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One Comment
  1. Meh permalink

    It is good to see this, but a lot of the info on good pedagogy has been around for a while. Doing teaches more than showing teaches more than telling. I actually turned my HS academic career around when I started playing football and it both helped me grow up and taught me that progressive training and technique makes your performance improve. Aped the same practices in math and science and it really helped me get better grades.

    My undergrad was at military academy and we were the customer. Pedagogy was just like high school (tests and quizzes, progressive learning rather than big exams or problem sets), teachers collecting and grading HW (regular HW, not super problem sets), recitation in math class, etc. I thought this was a very efficient way to learn and was needed since the students were time constrained. Yes, we got “spoon fed” but so what. I see that as efficiency.

    Grad school (many years later, in a science) was much worse pedagogically. Heard the crap about “expect you to learn how to teach yourself” which I always thought was a copout.

    I’m not bitter since I picked an easy project and got out in 4 years and had extra money from reserves and went to McKinsey afterwards. All that said, it was kind of a waste of time. But I saw others really spin their wheels and get bitter. Felt sort of bad for the time they were spending at 22-27 when I compared it to the learning curve I had in nuclear subs at same age. Yeah, a lot of work, but still more money, learning, and prestige.

    I think the same insight on pedagogy comes from small LA schools where students are still the customer. They become ideal candidates for Ph.D. research programs because they have not yet seen the sausage get made at Berkeley or the like.

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