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J. Moreno - Scattered Thoughts about Mathematics and Education.pdf

J. Moreno - Scattered Thoughts about Mathematics and Education.pdf

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Published by Sebastos37
Matemáticas y Educación
Matemáticas y Educación

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Published by: Sebastos37 on May 01, 2014
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SCATTERED THOUGHTS ABOUT MATHEMATICS ANDEDUCATION
 JAVIER A. MORENO
1. M
ATHEMATICS IS A HIDDEN SENSE
We feel mathematics. Our mind is designed to perceive and processnumbers, patterns and structures almost the same way it processes sightsor sounds. It is natural to us. We count stones (and then cattle, and thensteps on the moon); we measure change; we detect and exploit orders andsymmetries; we classify and organize information. This perceptual chan-nel, however, needs to be awaken and trained, otherwise it barely evolves.Learning mathematics is more about the refinement and control of anintuition (or a set of intuitions) than about the accumulation of facts andmechanical techniques. In order to properly assimilate mathematics, sothat you can appreciate its beauty and fully understand its limits, you needto experience it as if it was another universe. That is what I try to offerto my students when I teach. I try to guide them so they can perceive bythemselves these objects and start playing with them. Achieving this ishard, but it is wonderful when it happens. Serious multiverse travelling isnever easy at first.2. M
ATHEMATICS IS
 (
ALSO
)
 A LANGUAGE
We need a language to tell the story of what we have seen. The abstractnature of the mathematical experience has required us to come up withformal languages designed to help us share and also study the realitiesand creations accessible through this extra sense. These are very strict lan-guagesequippedwiththeirownsyntaxandgrammar. Sometimestheyfeellike symbolic games but they act as (perceptual) portals: through them weare able to explore, experiment and manipulate the structures that inhabitthe different mathematical universes. In a way, practicing the languageswith proper supervision enhances our intuition and vice versa. They alsoserve as a bridge between the natural world and mathematics. In class, Imake constant emphasis on the importance of communicating and record-ing ideas with clarity and precision, and I show my students how theselanguages facilitate the task.
1
 
SCATTERED THOUGHTS ABOUT MATHEMATICS AND EDUCATION 2
3. P
ROBLEMS COME FIRST
We need motivations, reasons to go there. Traditional mathematical ed-ucation provides the student with solutions to problems they have neverfacedbefore. Theydonotknowwhytheseproblemsareinterestingorchal-lenging. The problems arise almost as a sad justification for the time spentdiscussing the technique. As an instructor at the University of Illinois, Ihad the opportunity to try the opposite approach. I feel this approach isnotonlymorenaturalbecauseitissimilartothewaymathematicshasbeenconstructed/discovered, but also more effective and personally fulfilling.Whenever the setting permits, at the beginning of each class I introducecarefully chosen problems–sometimes with historical roots, sometimes outofrealsituations, sometimespurelyrecreational–andthenIletthestudentsplay in small groups with the problems so they can assess on their ownthe difficulty and also attempt na¨ıve solutions. I want the students to feelthe urge for solving the problems and to care about the problems, beforeI guide them through questions towards a solution that illustrates a moregeneral concept or technique. Then, I encourage the students to comple-ment what they have learned by exploring new problems that evidence therange of applications of the concept as well as its limitations. My task fromthen on is to monitor their progress and suggest questions and variantsthat provide insight, disrupt mechanical approaches, and test their freshlyacquired intuition.I believe good and careful problem design has been unjustifiably over-looked by traditional mathematical education. The generic (empty) prob-lem is nowadays the norm. This should change.4. S
OCIAL INTERACTION ENRICHES LEARNING
Mathematics is a social activity. It has been created and developed bypeople who have discussed problems and puzzles with other people. Itwas, and still is, a social game. That is the way it grew and evolved. Giventhis, I find it odd that in traditional undergraduate mathematics classes,with the immense lecture halls and industrialized marking, everything isdesigned to reduce social interaction and collaboration to its minimum.In my ideal learning environment, which I had the pleasure of achievingafewtimesattheUniversityofIllinois, studentsknowandtrusteachotherand collaborate. I also know them and they trust me. I am neither enemynor obstacle. I know (most of) their names and have also an idea of theirinterests, backgrounds and motivations. They are better students and I ama better instructor when we are not a bunch of strangers sharing a roomthrice a week. That is the reason I tell them about myself and ask them
 
SCATTERED THOUGHTS ABOUT MATHEMATICS AND EDUCATION 3
aboutthemselves. Evenwhenteachinginalargelecturehall,Iworkhardtogenerate a sense of community in class, sometimes with more success thanothers. Ialsoencouragestudentstousemyofficehourstodiscussproblemsone-on-one. I try to be as approachable as possible. When students loosenup, it is easier to detect their difficulties and strengths and, in turn, I am better able to focus my explanations and questions according to each case.I can also rely on them to help fellow classmates. The exchanges facilitateand enliven the process.5. E
XPERIMENTAL MATHEMATICS IS POSSIBLE
There is an unresolved tension between mathematical education and theuse of computers. Despite the fact that most people deal with mathematicsusing computers, active use of computers has not been included as partof the standard mathematical curriculum. We artificially disconnect twoactivities that will be inseparable when it comes to actually apply what has been learned.As I see it, computers can be marvelous tools to experience and discovermathematics. At the University of Illinois, I had the opportunity to teacha couple of courses within the Calculus and Mathematica program. Thesecourseswereconductedincomputerlabswherestudentswouldreviewthe basics of calculus by executing and solving a series of Mathematica-basedassignments. Ideas were graphically illustrated and the students had thechance of playing with techniques and concepts in an easy, interactive way.This approach allowed me to focus class discussions on the deep concep-tual machinery behind the superficial calculations and the physical, his-torical and philosophical ideas that motivated the creation of these tools.I found that the students in this type of course were better at visualizingmathematical concepts, which gave them an advantage over calculus stu-dents from more traditional sections. Through computers and program-ming, students can really experiment with the concepts they are learningand get a deeper understanding of the way they work. Programming skillsalso provide students with a practical way of formalizing and testing argu-ments and procedures.6. M
ATHEMATICAL TOOLS ARE ESSENTIALLY CONSTRAINED
We use mathematics, but we can also abuse mathematics. Mathematicaltools, although reliable and precise, are extremely limited in their range of applications and should be used with extreme care. Usually, natural phe-nomena must be drastically simplified in order to fit the requirements. Itmay be also necessary to add artificial assumptions that restrict the scope

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