Thursday, July 20, 2017

Rigidity or Flexibility and Creativity

There was a viral posting on the social media regarding a school test paper on multiplication that has caused a stir including myself. See here as an example. Normally, I do not want to comment on it since people do not usually like having their work to be commented on; what more if it is coupled with many jeering remarks. This has become a trend in the social media. But then, I felt I had to comment at least to voice that one can have a different interpretation to this matter and the student who got two marks could have been given eight marks instead if I interpreted the answer boxes differently. The insistence to have one way of approaching the problem seems to me troubling. And this is not a matter of having good marks for the student or to see who wins the argument. It is the rigidity. Instead of commenting further on the issue, let me just comment on my own experience.

I tend to have issues with certain instructions that tell me how to do my own teaching in some classes. Some of these are cosmetic that in the end one just follows the instruction. But there are others that tend to limit my creativity and what I thought is best in teaching. Particularly with university students which I thought should be independent and critical at some level. For instance, when I teach, I do not like to follow any one single book for the subject I am teaching. I tend to draw my own experience in understanding the subject matter. I do a lot of internalising before I teach a topic and this could involve a wider reading beyond a single book. Again let me recall my own experience with Prof. Herbert Green which has shaped my thoughts. His style of approaching a topic can't actually be found in books and that let me study and form my own ideas in understanding the subject. The other lecturers that I had experienced in Adelaide, Cambridge and Durham are more or less the same in their approaches in teaching. All of them had their opinions on the subject matter for which one can compare these with one's own reading of books elsewhere. Here is a pic of the people at the Department of Mathematical Physics, University of Adelaide and Bert Green is in the middle, which I found recently.

There are of course exceptions like when one is sharing a course with another colleague and you need to standardise the contents to be taught with say from some textbook. Even here, we do not interfere with each other's teaching method and we only meet to agree on the contents that needs to be covered. When developing tests and exam, we just need to agree what can be examined. When we are evaluating the exam scripts, we welcome alternate solutions than the solutions we have prepared for the exams. In fact, we often take note of the students who do so and they are often rare, of course. In the Math Competitions too, they may even award such students who produce original solutions.

I sincerely believe teaching, learning and of course research are activities that involve creativity and thus one should be flexible in ways of approaching them. There is no one standard way of teaching and the students that can come to us are not like factory products to be homogeneously shaped into one style of thinking. As such is my experience, I think the same applies in school. We need to rethink some of the approaches of teaching and workbooks that tend to flood the school students nowadays that have the tendency to remove creativity and joy in learning. Of course, this is only my personal opinion.

But let us see what some studies have said about great teaching:

These practices have evidence in improving learning:
  • teachers' content knowledge and their ability to understand students' understanding and misconceptions
  • strategies in effective questioning and assessment
  • challenge students to understand reason behind a lesson
  • large number of questions and response evaluation
  • space out study and practice on a given topic
  • test them or let them generate answers before they learn a topic

On the other hand, these practices have no evidence in improving learning:
  • lavish praising
  • students discover ideas by themselves
  • group students by their abilities
  • presenting materials according to learners' style.
The whole report can be read here. Even with this, one should not take this as unquestioned gospel. Allow flexibility of ideas and approaches to see what works in the circumstance one is in.

In the end, we will be partly responsible on what we teach students and how they are affected.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Varia: Reblogging and Time to Think

Have stopped blogging for more than a month. Much due to being busy with many duties and among the time-consuming ones are my role as chief editor and examiners to postgraduate theses. I will discuss some of the things that I do, so that people understand (if they wish to). But before that, let me make comments of a few events that I had wished to blog on but was too busy.

First is the Topological Phase Transition workshop that our group went to in Singapore. It was an interesting event whose contents are very much new to us. Some of the things I know were from my past readings when I dabbled into quantum Hall effect and geometric phases. There were two Nobel laureates at the workshop, namely, J.M. Kosterlitz and F.D.M. Haldane (two of the three 2016 Nobel Physics Laureates). Kosterlitz spoke on his personal research experience; graduated as a high energy physicist (on strong interactions, see here) and later joined David Thouless as a postdoc for which they began their celebrated work. It is interesting to note K.K. Phua's remarks on Thouless here. Haldane's talk attracted me most mainly because my research interest in noncommutative geometry which is often promoted as the framework for Planck-scale physics but it has applications to more down-to-earth physics in quantum Hall effect (as early as at least Bellisard's article). In Haldane's description, noncommutativity in "spatial coordinates" arises from the particle-flux composite alluding also to a nonlocal description. Some references of the idea can be found here, here and here. Our group had planned top for a group photo with these Nobel laureates but we only managed to get one with Kosterlitz (only partial group - see below - together with Jorge Jose). We are too embarrassed to actually ask for more photos.

Instead we had a group photo with Mike Gunn, one of the co-chairmen of the workshop. I've met Mike Gunn in the late 1990s when we invited him over to the Physics Department for a local conference commemorating two decades of physics in UPM (probably the only one who understood my talk at the time and asked questions). Him having a very humble personality, we were not too embarrassed to approach him for the photo.

We had a nice chat about progress in our universities and how the ranking mania has affected us (see photo).

Next event, was the workshop we organised on Controlling Dynamics in Mathematical Models of Real Neurons, where we have invited Assoc. Prof. Dr. Sergey Borisenok. I have actually met Sergey in ICREM 5 in Bandung, where he had presented a similar topic on Brain Dynamics. A year later, we invited him over to the institute to conduct two workshops: (i) Workshop on Mathematical Methods in Brain Dynamics, 11-12 June 2013; and (ii) Workshop on Control Algorithms for Quantum Models, 27-28 June 2013. Thus, this is his third workshop here.

Third, is of course our Eid celebrations. We celebrated first in KL and then later in Johor. Here are some pics with my brothers and sister.

Back to matters that occupied my mind in Ramadhan until very recently. Just before my Singapore trip, I had to look into our May issue of Malaysian Journal of Mathematical Sciences. I do this each time an issue is completed (after reviews and author proof-reads), to check that everything is more or less in order before it is uploaded on the web. One of the things that I do particularly check is the references given in each article. For the citation indexers, it is important that the references have the correct volume number, issue number and page/article numbers. As part of the academic publishing community, we have to play our part checking these, and in part to ensure the good quality of the journal. So the work is laborious and network stability is a must. Later if we subscribe to add in DOI numbers to our published articles, then we will also need to put DOIs to the references. So we have plenty to do and hopefully in the future, this work can be distributed among a few. Thus, it is in the best interest of our journal to not reduce the number of staff involved in these. Also, note that in some places/universities, the chief editors are given to academics who do not have other main administrative duties (which is not the case here) and they even have allowances (which is not my concern here, but the workload is).

Another is being examiners for M.Sc. and Ph.D. theses. In the areas of theoretical physics and pure mathematics, there are not many of us in the field in the country that can be examiners (if you put further conditions on the examiners, then the number of potential examiner dwindles down further). Being a theoretical physicist who also dabbles into diverse areas of mathematics, I normally get to read theses in very diverse areas. So for example, theses with odd topics have good probability to be passed to me. So in the last four week or so, I have gone through theses on black hole decays in accelerators (external), fractional integral transforms (internal), and fuzzy soft bitopological spaces (internal). Just yesterday and this morning I have been asked to examine two more PhD theses in materials science, one of which I had to decline. Reading them requires first an understanding of what they do and then critically assess the novelty of their study. This means I had to go through their references quite meticulously. So I had to take some time off from my normal duties to complete reports for the theses examination. If some find me "idle" with respect to my other duties, this is merely me trying to focus and have time to think (this is actually difficult to do these days).

While some may say this is an era of multitasking and we need to adapt to such conditions, such views need to be balanced with articles such as this. If pushed further, let me ask them to consciously think technical topics in parallel in a period of time to see if they can do so effectively.