a second meditation on being a teacher

I just attended the first TeachMeet #tmsotonuni earlier this week at the University of Southampton. Though I wasn’t able to attend the whole of the event, the talks I did see fill me with enormous hope and joy.  I love the energy of teachers.

I had the opportunity to say a few words at the beginning.  Reflecting on the words I would say, I realized that I’ve been teaching for almost 30 years, and that surprised me.  I don’t know why it should surprise me, time being what time is and given the age that I am, but nonetheless it did surprise me.

I was preaching to the converted when I said that teaching is hard.  I have always found it to be hard, from the days when I first started.   Part of why I find it hard is the nature of the beast, taking some moderately complicated mathematics and structuring it for the consumption of people who have never seen it before.  But that’s only part of it.

The other part, the main part, is the nature of teaching.  As teachers, we are trying to affect change in our students.   Part of the change is the knowledge located in the heads of our students.  Between the beginning and the end of a semester, or the beginning and the end of a single session, I want the mathematical knowledge in my students’ head to be different.  I want them to know more at the end than they did at the beginning.

But it’s more than just facts.  Part of it is the machinery we use to process these facts.  And this is the more important part.  There was a time, not all that long ago, when the acquisition and storage of facts was an expensive proposition.  One of the functions of universities was to act as repositories for these facts.

But facts are now cheap.  We have access to vast quantities of facts.  We are overwhelmed with facts and so just having facts is no longer as distinctive a proposition as it once was.  The tools to process facts, though, to take facts and to generate something interesting from them, that is distinctive.  And this is what we are trying to teach our students.  And this is hard.

How do I meaningfully move through this immersive ocean of facts in which I find myself?  I need to have tools to use, to help me make sense of it all.  And these are the tools I am trying to give to my students.

~ by Jim Anderson on 14 February 2015.

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