College Math Teaching

February 14, 2015

No, I don’t “learn more from my students than they do from me”: BUT…..

I admit that I chuckled when a famous stand up comic said: “”New Rule: Any teacher that says, ‘I learn as much from my students as they learn from me,’ is a sh***y teacher and must be fired.””

Yes, I assure you, when it comes to subject matter, my students had bloody well learn more from me than I do from them. 🙂

BUT: when it comes to class preparation, I find myself learning a surprising amount of material, even when I’ve taught the class before.
For example, teaching third semester calculus (multi-variable) lead me to thinking about some issues and to my rediscovering some theorems presented a long time ago and often not used in calculus/advanced calculus books. THAT lead to a couple of published papers.

And, given that my teaching specialty has morphed into applied mathematics, teaching numerical analysis has lead me to learn some interesting stuff for the first time; it has filled some of the “set of measure infinity” gaps in my mathematical education.

So, ok, this semester I am teaching elementary topology. Surely, I’d learn nothing new though I’d enjoy myself. It turns out: that isn’t the case. Very often I find myself starting to give a proof of something and find myself making (correct) assumptions that, well, I last proved 30 years ago. Then I ask myself: “now, just why is this true again?”

One of the fun projects is showing that the topologist’s sine curve is connected but not path connected (if one adds the vertical segment at x = 0). It turns out that this proof is pretty easy, BUT…I found myself asking “why is this detail true?” a ton of times. I drove myself crazy.

Note: later today I’ll give my favorite proof; it uses the sequential definition of continuity and the subspace topology; both of these concepts are new to my students and so it is helpful to find reasons to use them, even if these aren’t the most mathematically elegant ways to do the proof.

This is why I proved the Intermediate Value Theorem using the “least upper bound” concept instead of using connectivity. The more they use a new concept, the better they understand it.


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