# On the question 'What is gratifying in being a mathematics teacher?'

The question What is gratifying in being a mathematics teacher? sparked some discussion.

At the moment it is not very clear if this is due to a side-aspect (a comparison of teaching math to that of other subjects) or if some see more fundamental reasons.

This thread is for discussing the appropriatenes of the question.

I deleted all (meta) comments on main and the question was edited by OP to remove content likely to create "meta discussion", but I preserve the comments in an answer below for reference and to avoid users having to repost them if they want the opinion preserved.

• Thank you for your moderation efforts! – Chris Cunningham Apr 10 '14 at 16:14

1. Should this be about teaching mathematics or completely general? (Sure also for math there will be general aspects but as written there is no mention of math at all.) Also you might want to limit the scope. I think teaching in an elementary school and at a university are so different that to treat them together is at least not necessary. And since you are worried the question is borderline to sharpen it a bit could help. – quid

2. (Score 3) Your characterization of teaching history is a straw man, and one that seems rather insulting to history teachers. Given that, I don't see why this is a question specifically about teaching math. – Henry Towsner

3. @HenryTowsner It's a bad example. My intention was to emphasize that other subjects focus on knowledge while math is more about understanding. I'd be glad to change it (I don't like it either), but could not find anything better. Nevertheless, the difference exists: if a math teacher would base his classes on memorization, I would call him/her crazy; yet, for other subjects, even if there is a part that has to be understood (e.g. the social effects of some revolution), there is a bigger part that has to be known (e.g. dates of any major event). It'd be great if you could offer some suggestion? – dtldarek

4. Since my first comment was perhaps not clear regarding this, I do agree that different subjects should be different. I only wanted to have the intent made explicit (perhaps unnecessarily so), so that it can not happen somebody answers based on examples and experience not applicable to math. (Or if it happens it is clear it is an ot answer.) For CW: Since I do not see any need for widespread editing in this thread, I see no need for it being CW. (I know about traditions on other sites that'd make this CW, but here none exists so far. If we want one, we should agree on policy on meta first.) – quid

5. I think it is too narrow a conception to consider a good history class as one in which the "bigger part" consists of, e.g., memorizing dates of major events. Some history teachers will require students to memorize a fair number of facts; good teachers will have the students investigate these facts: not just when an event occurred, but what led up to it, how its effects were felt subsequently (or even today), and what lessons can be drawn more generally. Similar remarks hold for a mathematics teacher who requires students to memorize the definitions of many mathematical objects... – Benjamin Dickman

6. @BenjaminDickman Do you claim that the understanding/memorizing ratio for history lessons (what an unfortunate example, I like history very much!) is as high as in math? I disagree. In particular you can derive the formulas for quadratic equation, but you can't infer the historical events with accuracy that is expected at tests and exams. It is possible to rebuild math from scratch, but it's impossible to recover history once it's lost (assuming irreversible dynamic of our world, no time machines, etc.). – dtldarek

7. We might be getting "too meta" here (and I contributed my part). Perhaps we could just say in OP: '(mathematics)' in front of teacher, leave all attempts at justification and discussion of it away here. And potential discussion of the question goes to meta? – quid

8. @dtldarek Since this is MESE and not HESE, let me limit myself to this last remark: I think that with regard to classroom requirements in HS or college, it is more likely that a student has to write history papers than mathematics papers. In this respect, I expect the nature of assignments (and standardized testing for HS) would result in students - in many cases - memorizing more for mathematics classes, and being given greater opportunities to integrate/synthesize material in meaningful ways in history classes. (As quid suggests: Further discussion is probably best directed to meta.) – Benjamin Dickman

9. @quid I got carried away, this should not have happened $\ddot\frown$ Moving to meta is an excellent suggestion. Could you please open a relevant post (I'm afraid that I would make it biased as I did with the OP)? – dtldarek

I've voted to close as too broad. Here are some potential subquestions that I personally would not vote to close:

• As a math educator, how do you keep yourself motivated to keep improving?
• As a math educator, how do you avoid getting bored?
• As a math educator, do you recommend math education to your students? [Why or why not, and are you telling the truth when you say it?]

I think these are more specific and would provide better-quality answers.

• Could you explain what aspects of the original question make it too broad, but are not present in these presented in your post? If we decide the original question is inappropriate, it seems to me that the above would be equally inappropriate as well. – dtldarek Apr 10 '14 at 16:18
• I believe that all of the answers to all three of my questions are also answers to yours. If a question can be split into a ton of subquestions, I think it is usually good to split them? I'm not speaking from authority here, to be clear! – Chris Cunningham Apr 10 '14 at 16:20
• I agree with the sentiments here. I think specificity makes for a good question in that it leads to much better answers. Think of it this way: will any answer to the original question be accepted? I think it's highly unlikely; there are too many reasonable ways to answer it. That's what makes it a not so great question on this site. It's a great question, in general, mind you! – Brendan W. Sullivan Apr 10 '14 at 16:37
• I doubt that splitting the question is a valid criterion. Any question can be split infinitely and how fine-grained the split should be is fuzzy at best. Moreover, I wrote the original in that form to allow for testimonials, which are much easier to do than arguing how recommend education to students. In my opinion such answers would serve the community better. – dtldarek Apr 10 '14 at 16:38
• As for your suggestions, your opinion might steam from different understanding of the meaning of the original question. In fact, for me "As a math educator, how you recommend math education to your students?" is the closest one, any answer for the original would be an answer to the first and third, while the second is irrelevant (boring and gratifying have orthogonal meanings). I admit, my English is far from perfect, and would gladly improve the OP, so that the meaning is clear to all. – dtldarek Apr 10 '14 at 16:39
• @brendansullivan07 I agree, that we would like the questions to have accepted answers, however, this is a different type of question (this is why I wanted to make it CW). My intention was to collect some content that could be later reused and linked-to. It doesn't fit exactly in the scope of the site, but I think it would be of help nevertheless. If you take a look at other StackExchange sites, each older portal has a few such questions, many of them highly-voted (which indicates they are welcome in the community, even if they do not fit exactly). BTW The OP may have an accepted answer anyway. – dtldarek Apr 10 '14 at 16:48
• @dtldarek I see. I wasn't aware we were also having those kinds of CW posts. Did I miss a discussion of this, or is our just assumed for any SE site? – Brendan W. Sullivan Apr 10 '14 at 16:51
• @brendansullivan07 I don't remember any such discussion. I asked the question, because I thought it would benefit the community. As quid mentioned in the comments (4), we yet need to decide whether we would like to welcome such questions and what policies would apply (e.g. making CW or not). – dtldarek Apr 10 '14 at 16:59

TL;DR There are too many things going on, I was unable to make a summary, sorry.

Introduction:

One of the issues I see here and would like to address is:

How the properties of mathematics (whatever they are)
affect questions and answers on teaching mathematics?

The fact is, there might be questions posed as general-education problems, but the characteristics of mathematics may make some answers more applicable and others perhaps even inappropriate. I would deem such questions on topic here, at MESE.

I'll try next to cover (possibly in a shallow way) the following topics:

1. What are the properties of math that makes it different?
2. How does it affect the answers and questions?
3. Does it apply to the original question?

1. What are the properties of math that makes it different?

To list a few characteristics:

• Math is a zcience. (Using 'z' to avoid name-calling. To me this is just yet another characteristic for which I could not find a better term.) What I mean is that studying a mathematical object/structure does not change it (i.e. it is fixed). Exploring the mathematical world, we discover relations, theorems, etc., that is, these connections were there before we uncovered them; even before the mammals took over the Earth, $2 + 2$ was equal $4$ (and I'm not talking about the symbols, but the relation between the abstract concepts of two and four). On the other hand, business practices would not constitute a zcience in this sense, because introducing a new behavior (possible due to some research on business practices) might change the whole environment (including the business practices themselves). Naturally, I do not claim things which are not zcience in said sense are in any way inferior. This is just yet another characteristic.
• Math is build on assumptions. Once the axioms are stated, everything is done, all the inferences, effects, relations, properties, nothing changes. The set of axioms builds a whole new world and fixes it. It might be fascinating, but it is static, does not change (when moving to another problem we might change the world instead).
• Math is abstract. Some objects that are studied by mathematicians could not exists in reality (e.g. be material).
• Math is objective. There is no "my hypothesis is better than yours". Any proof is valid or not. You don't prove theorems "by authority".
• Math has a significant (subjective) art component. Any domain has an art component, but from all the sciences, mathematicians strive for (subjective form of) beauty the most. Unlike in some other domains, papers might be accepted solely by the elegance of the result or cleverness of the proof, despite how insignificant it may be. The distinction is that in other areas researchers investigate worlds which are already there, while mathematicians create their worlds (e.g. by assuming different axioms), similarly to writers, musicians, photographers, etc.
• Math has strong cognitive aspect (in the information-processing sense). I would even say: stronger than any other domain excluding a few like physics, theoretical computer science, philosophy, etc., about which I'm not sure. I'm not suggesting that geography, cooking or farming do not require thinking, only that math requires thinking in different amounts. I'm afraid that quantifying this sentiment is difficult. First there is an issue of school/domain distinction (as presented by two comments reproduced below), second I see no way of measuring the cognitive work (not effort) objectively. Therefore, I cannot backup this point in any reasonable way and I present it as my whim. To indicate why I'm biased in this direction, I have met multiple mathematicians who could handle history (or other domains), but very few historians (and practitioners of other domains) who could handle mathematics (I know that's not only anecdotal, but also improperly measured, and yet there might be other factors; it still managed to skew my opinion).
• I said: "Do you claim that the understanding/memorizing ratio for history lessons (what an unfortunate example, I like history very much!) is as high as in math? I disagree. In particular you can derive the formulas for quadratic equation, but you can't infer the historical events with accuracy that is expected at tests and exams. It is possible to rebuild math from scratch, but it's impossible to recover history once it's lost (assuming irreversible dynamic of our world, no time machines, etc.)." which refers to the math as a domain.
• Benjamin Dickman said: "Since this is MESE and not HESE, let me limit myself to this last remark: I think that with regard to classroom requirements in HS or college, it is more likely that a student has to write history papers than mathematics papers. In this respect, I expect the nature of assignments (and standardized testing for HS) would result in students - in many cases - memorizing more for mathematics classes, and being given greater opportunities to integrate/synthesize material in meaningful ways in history classes. (As quid suggests: Further discussion is probably best directed to meta.)" which refers to subjects as they are done at schools/universities.

2. How does it affect the answers and questions?

• Math is a zcience. This basic effect this could have is that soft arguments, e.g. teacher's opinion or "this has always worked for me", have much less weight. For example, some psychologist might say that one therapy applies better than the other basing only on his instinct and prior experience. In math however, it is not the opinion that convinces someone, but the proof or counterexample. Therefore, answers which refer to using soft arguments might not apply. Also, it might be possible to suggest solutions which use hard arguments that would be impossible in other settings.
• Math is build on assumptions. This might create a curious class dynamic, because it has a kind of "what if" flair. There are no disputes like "The Earth is flat! No, the Earth is spherical!", instead there could be "Let's assume that the Earth is flat. Then..." One does not argue if the axiom of choice is true, only what consequences it has. It does not matter whether some theory aligns with reality, it might be interesting by itself (or not, but not because of reality). This could make some approaches infeasible (e.g. let's go to the math-zoo to observe Banach-Tarski paradox), while others viable (e.g. "imagine you are a two-dimensional entity that lives at a Möbius band"). Questions and answers need to take it into account.
• Math is abstract. This poses additional challenges like "how to present a Klein bottle" which does not appear in practical domains or "how to explain Yoneda lemma" which become trivial for any concrete instance. This suggests teaching-questions which aren't of interest in other fields.
• Math is objective. This changes the meaning of "authority" and forces the teachers into different mode of work, for example "because I said so" is not a valid argument. Moreover, students may present their own solutions which cannot be disregarded if correct. However, it also makes some parts easier like demonstrating why student's argumentation is invalid (a task much harder to do if the question is of the "state your opinion and back it up" form).
• Math has a significant (subjective) art component. This might help in some aspects, like motivating students, but also pose problems with teaching students to recognize the mathematical kind of beauty (there's hardly anything else like this). Hence, there might be questions and answers which wouldn't be of interest to the teachers of other domains.
• Math has strong cognitive aspect. This is one of the reasons why math causes difficulties to a huge percent of students, this is what makes it possible to pass a math exam without studying hard, this might be a source of joy and frustration to both students and teachers. MESE already has a number of questions that steam directly from this issue, e.g. Should I design my exams to have time-pressure or not?, How do you handle a wide ability range when delivering a 50 min tutorial with lots of material to get through? or Presenting a solution with a stroke of genius. I doubt this need more commentary.

3. Does it apply to the original question?

The examples below are just to explain why I think that some of the bullets are relevant to the original question (in particular, I made it up).

• Math is a zcience. It could cause satisfaction if some student would perform a successful independent research.
• Math is build on assumptions. It could cause satisfaction if some student came up with some really nice model/set of axioms, possibly with some unexpected consequences.
• Math is abstract. There might be some satisfaction when a student makes some far-reaching parallels between mathematical theories, but this is a huge stretch.
• Math is objective. It could cause some gratification if the student would start to thing for himself/herself, e.g. perhaps not taking what teacher said for granted, but verifying it themselves.
• Math has a significant (subjective) art component. This could be a great source of satisfaction, e.g. if some students arrives at especially nice solution.
• Math has strong cognitive aspect. This could be a source of satisfaction for example in case when we see the intellectual growth of the pupil which causes an additional development/progress in areas other than mathematics.

Conclusion:

There are some general-education questions which might get significantly different answers if the context is mathematics. Some of them could be asked, for example, at academia.SE, however the answer/advice could be unsuitable. I think such questions are on-topic at MESE.

I think that the original post that caused this discussion describes one of such questions.

What do you think?

• Thank you for explaining in such detail. I think a main objection now is not so much that it is 'not enough math' but rather that it is too vague or too broad. Personally I am not sure either way. On the one hand, it is a bit a stretch of the format, as you admit too. On the other hand, it could be somehow a nice thing to show prominently how people can be passionate about teaching math. – quid Apr 10 '14 at 22:19
• @quid Perhaps it is too broad, but good answers indicate that there is a potential in the question. There are already 3 answers and perhaps there will be more. We could still close it if there is no participation or too much crappy content. On the other hand we won't know if the question gets closed now - voting open will be too high a barrier. – dtldarek Apr 10 '14 at 22:26
• I would say let us see how thing develop in the discussion. I do not agree that (the community) voting to reopen is too high a barrier in general. – quid Apr 10 '14 at 22:46
• @quid Sure. If the OP gets closed, there should be some feedback and it ought to be possible to fix the issues and then reopen in all its glory ^^ – dtldarek Apr 10 '14 at 22:53
• Since you quoted me, I might point out that you omitted the start of what you said (preserved by quid's post here): Do you claim that the understanding/memorizing ratio for history lessons (what an unfortunate example, I like history very much!) is as high as in math? Since you asked about history lessons, my remarks are about the classroom; you contrast my comment about school learning with one about domains more generally, when in fact I was responding directly to a question about the former. – Benjamin Dickman Apr 11 '14 at 1:04
• @BenjaminDickman You are right, now both comments are cited as a whole. – dtldarek Apr 11 '14 at 7:14