Friday, July 25, 2008

Wrting to Learn Mathematics

I found a book which seems interesting and is called: Writing to Learn Mathematics... You can actually read the first few pages of it, which I strongly recommend. The synopsis of it says, "This text demonstrates that the use of journals, learning logs, letters, autobiographies, investigations, and formal papers can improve the reasoning abilities of maths students“. I found the book link thanks to Jon Ingram, but I haven't read the thing myself.

Anyway, the point here is about writing and in particular writing Mathematics. Once again the old age debate is awoken about why people study maths. Now most prospective first years, fresh from their A Levels, might echo that they chose to study Maths because in English all you do is write, whereas Maths is special and only involves numbers.

Boy will them students be in for a shock! (And I say all this from experience.) The first week will be like a blur - finding ones feet and making new friends whilst trying to keep up with the studies from the beginning, You will make the friends and will establish your routine, but then it's week four and the warning bells start ringing. The advice of your lecturers and personal tutor walks with you, shattering your peace - "study as you go along; maths is not a spectator sport, it is like learning a new language" they say.

Week six it's reading week and you sigh with relief. There are coursework tests as soon as you head back, but hey this break is well deserved and revision will have its own time. Now if you are at Manchester you will be cursing the very language of English at this stage. Why? Well we have this workshop module which requires you to investigate a topic, answer some questions in a group and then hand in a written report on everything! Isn't that just brilliant?

Towards the end of reading week you have yet to write your report, which means you have to use sentences, paragraphs and proper words! You have also yet to revise and catch up on things, so you hit your lowest point and think about giving up. The pressure is too much for you to handle and the report is just a thorn in your brain. You start asking questions for ways out, but then you are reminded of who you are... a mathematician. You remember why you studied maths... the challenge. You go back to the friendly territories which pacify you and give you courage. No report (with proper sentences) can bring me down.

Obviously the experiences outlined above might not be faced by any student, or only a few (or one!) Nevertheless, the amount of times I heard "I studied Maths to avoid all this report writing mumbo jumbo" was unbelievable. And yes, in the first six weeks I was part of the group who complained about this until we went blue in the face! I complained some after the first six weeks, but then it was half heartedly as I had been given a second chance. Redemption.

Nowadays I complain until I'm blue in the face, at the fact that secondary school teachers tend to implant the differences between English and Maths into student's minds. It is not uncommon to hear a Maths teacher boast "there's only one right answer and you don't have to write much" to her students. And equally, an English teacher never fails to express the fact that there can be no wrong answers in his classroom, because English is full of possibilities.

You step back from this picture and question both teachers. Maths is full of possibilities, and the correct answer isn't as important as one sometimes makes it to be. (No hard feelings towards "right answers" here, but boy do they kill any fight students might have). Maths is a creative subject, as is English.

Students are not aware of the creativity of Maths because they are not writing Maths using English. Numbers and symbols have no life and meaning on their own (apart from a few delicacies!). It is the words -- the adjectives, joining words, and the sentences which give the numbers and symbols their life. The mathematical story can only be told with both numbers and words.

How can we expect students to believe that maths is a creative subject, when what they see tells them something different? I don't think Maths should be an alternative to English. I mean, if you can't spell then you shouldn't just focus on the Maths and use the fact that Maths has no word as justification to not being able to spell. You shouldn't use the fact that you study Maths to justify anything you can't do. The human is a wonderful creation and we are designed to learn at all times. Learn about the world, each other and how to spell! Seriously, do you think I could spell once upon a time? It's quite embarrassing when I realised that I had spelt a post title wrong, which spell check doesn't pick up! (I still can't spell certain words, and my grammar and punctuation aren't particularly good).

I agree with the synopsis of the book that Maths students should write. Not necessarily write Maths all the time, but anything ranging from articles, stories and so on. My interest in English was developed by my English teacher as she realised that I enjoyed the creative writing part of the exam! She made me enter some short story writing competitions at school and college, after which I gave up. However at University, call it a freak accident if you might, this blog came along which really developed my English.

Somewhere along the lines I think my blog helped me in my Mathematics too, especially the posts when I whinged about not being able to understand something or being unable to do a question. So I am all for Mathematics students creating blogs, or just writing Maths or anything else using words. I guess writing things down helps our brains to process them. Did your blog help you in anyway?

PS: Didn't mean to scare any prospective first years by the first six weeks narrated above! I suffered because people kept telling me to change course, which didn't help, however I am sure you will make the switch to university Maths painlessly. :)

PPS: If I disappear from the face of this planet it is because of the creature occupying my room, which might eat me. The disadvantages of sleeping on the floor I suppose, and for watching Dr. Who! I'm being serious by the way! I don't know where it went and it was not a spider, so my imagination has become even more active. If only my sonic screwdriver was working... erm, just keep looking over you shoulders!

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