Saturday, August 31, 2013

Leading Korean Mathematician Advises: Read Novels, Watch Movies

Hwang Jun-muk
Korea Herald

The prominent Korean mathematician Hwang Jun-muk -- interviewed by Oh Kyu-wook -- offers some unusual advice in "Mathematicians must be storytellers" (Korea Herald, August 28, 2013):
A good mathematician requires not only techniques but also creativity . . . . [Hwang Jun-muk] perhaps inherited his creative side from his parents. His father is traditional Korean music composer and "gayageum" master Hwang Byung-ki and his mother is one of the country's leading authors, Han Mal-sook.

"Thanks to my parents, I read a lot of books at home in my childhood. That may help me now when I present my ideas to others."

"I had a chance to talk to high school students, and I told them read novels as well as watch movies a lot to practice and improve their skills to present their ideas well in a simple and interesting way . . . . [This is] important to be a good mathematician," he added.
Why such advice?
The ability to tell stories is needed among mathematicians in Korea where the subject is still deemed boring and learned by rote, said the nation's top academic in the field.

Korean students are among the top performers in international mathematics contests, but they lag far behind in terms of interest and passion, which may account for the relatively modest performances by professional Korean researchers in the world . . . . "When I prepare for a presentation, I think hard to put my ideas into a good, interesting story. If you put all mathematical proofs just in order and present it to your audience, it will be extremely boring . . . . Korean mathematicians have good techniques and knowledge and made progress in research, but they are still not good at making a story (in comparison to Western powerhouses for advanced mathematics)."
Mathematics taught through stories! That's an unexpected reply to my query! Here's the crux of the problem:
A key stumbling block is the current educational curriculum, which has traditionally emphasized only problem-solving techniques. Also, many Korean mathematicians do not learn how to present their ideas.
In short, Hwang says that the Korean pedagogical system does not encourage creativity and the inspiration that comes with good teaching, and that means, even for mathematicians, telling stories. Is he right? Well, he surely knows more about this than I do.

But I wish the article had given an example of a story Hwang might use to teach mathematics . . .

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At 5:43 PM, Blogger Able said...

Another interesting one!

I, think, I see what he means. Having written not a few theses, and marked/graded a few too (on non-literary subjects) I've always appreciated a 'flow' in the narrative. I suppose some basic psychological trait where such a narrative enables an easier understanding, even if the flow is a notional construct.

I'm ashamed (OK not quite) to admit, my first thought was of Terry Pratchett (don't judge me! I read the classics too, I have a complete collection of The Beano). Why? Because of his 'narrative causality'. We, everything, are part of a story (although I suspect mine isn't a best seller) and you can discern possible future events from the flow of the 'plot'.

I'll go and sit in the corner, facing the wall, now shall I?

At 5:54 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree that stories are a great teaching method. I just can't quite see how they work in learning math!

But I've written an email to inquire, so maybe we'll hear from the man . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This problem isn't just limited to Korea. I can say the same for many of my American math, science, and engineering professors.

At 3:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You mean they don't know how to teach in an inspiring way?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:55 AM, Blogger bibnida said...

I have heard others refer to the rhetoric of their critical essays as 'the story of the argument', though there is no fictive or anecdotal narrative present. I think they mean the progression from proof to prof and the cohesion they must maintain to do it well.

This math prof may refer to doing something more argumentative with a math presentation than simply presenting profs. I'd be interested to hear his reply. ~bruce

At 4:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I hope he does reply, but my hopes are fading.

Jeffery Hodges

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