Episode #82: Mathematics for Human Flourishing – An Interview with Francis Su
Francis Su is a professor at Harvey Mudd College in California, he’s a past president of the Mathematical Association of America, he’s won multiple awards for teaching, and he’s the author of a new book Mathematics for Human Flourishing.
In this episode we chat with Francis about how learning mathematics can help us become better human beings; how can mathematics help us become better at exploring truth and justice; and, how to change your assessment to reflect what you value.
- How learning mathematics can help become a better human being.
- How can mathematics help us become better at exploring truth and justice.
- How to change your assessment to reflect what you value.
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Francis Su: We need to have a society that actually does the hard work of thinking and evaluating what’s true and what’s not true, and what math does for you. One of the best things that math does for you is it gives you the ability to say to myself, yes, there is something here I can figure out for myself. I don’t have to take every fact given to me on authority. I can actually make some sense of things, right? So that’s one thing [crosstalk 00:00:25].
Kyle Pearce: Francis Su is a professor at Harvey Mudd College in California. He’s a past president of the Mathematical Association of America. He’s won multiple awards for teaching, and he’s the author of a newer book called Mathematics for Human Flourishing.
Jon Orr: In this episode, we chat with Francis about how learning mathematics can help us become human beings, how mathematics can help us become at exploring truth and justice, and how to change your assessment to reflect what you value in the classroom.
Kyle Pearce: Let’s do this. Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast, I’m Kyle Pearce from tapintoteenminds.com.
Jon Orr: And I’m Jon Orr from mrorr-isageek.com. We are two math teachers, who, together.
Kyle Pearce: With you, the community of educators worldwide who want to build and deliver math lessons that spark engagement.
Jon Orr: Fuel learning.
Kyle Pearce: And ignite teacher action. Jon, are you ready to get into this great conversation with Francis?
Jon Orr: Of course, Kyle, of course. We are honored to bring you this episode with Francis. It was a great chat and I’m really looking forward to sharing that with you.
Kyle Pearce: That’s right, Jon. Before we dive in and talk with Francis, we want to thank you for listening wherever you are, whether it’s at home, at the gym, in the kitchen washing dishes, or maybe on your prep time. If you’ve listened to us before and enjoyed the episode and the value that you’ve gotten from it, please, please let us know by doing a rating and review in Apple podcasts. Just like this one from Math Martian.
Jon Orr: Math Martian says, the title, “How your weekly PLT should be. Love this podcast. Must listen for every math educator. Reflective and resourceful.” Thanks so much, Math Martian, for that five-star review. It is fantastic to read these every week.
Kyle Pearce: Yeah, there’s nothing better than opening up the iTunes app and being able to see that there are people out there who are listening and are appreciating the conversations as much as we are when we bring on our math mentoring moments and our interview guests.
Jon Orr: So, have you taken 10 seconds to hit pause? Scroll down in your podcast app and tap the five stars. Okay. Okay. Don’t hit five stars if you don’t think that’s accurate, but please do hit a star rating and give us that quick feedback.
Kyle Pearce: If you want to be a math moment maker hero, then take the extra two minutes to also write that short review, one to three sentences, and let us know what value you’re taking from the episode.
Jon Orr: That would just mean the world to us.
Kyle Pearce: All right. Now, we do have a lot of goodies to share with you and it revolves around the Make Math Moments Academy. Right now, for a limited time, we have a 30-day teacher license available for any math moment maker from around the world to access our academy professional development courses for free, including courses on spiraling, assessment, math tech tools, and even our latest course on how to make math moments from a distance. These self-paced courses are jampacked with videos and action items to get you reflecting and growing your math content knowledge and pedagogical practice.
Jon Orr: Also, gain access to our monthly Q&A web calls, both live and replay recordings. The over 20 virtual summit sessions from this past November, and our Make Math Moments problem-based tasks and full units of study with teacher guides are also available for you to access.
Kyle Pearce: Get on in before it goes away at makemathmoments.com/academy. That’s makemathmoments.com/academy.
Jon Orr: All right. Enough from us. Let’s get on to the fantastic conversation with Francis. Hey there, Francis. Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast. As always, when we speak with guests, we are super excited to have you on the show today. How are you doing? And you know what? Where are you coming from? Talk to us a little bit about that too.
Francis Su: Yeah. Well, thank you very much for having me. I am in Southern California. I teach at a school called Harvey Mudd College, which is a science and engineering school in Sunny California.
Kyle Pearce: Fantastic. Fantastic. Well, you know what? We know a lot about you, and I’m sure many in our audience also know of Francis. We’re wondering a little bit more, let’s dig a little deeper, what’s your role in math education? And how did you come to that role? I know a lot of people always say, “Oh, it’s a long story,” but if you could give us a nice little ride through your experience and what landed you in this world of mathematics.
Francis Su: Sure, yeah. I guess I’ve been introduced to mathematics as a kid by my parents, and gravitated towards it. But I don’t think I really understood what it was until I got to college and realized, whoa, there’s actually something really beautiful and creative about it, and so that’s when I started getting interested. And then I started learning about math teaching when I was in my PhD program and realized, I love teaching. Yeah. I mean, I think this part of what made me think, ah, I want to be a professor.
Jon Orr: I want to dig a little bit deeper on this because that phrase you just said, you didn’t understand it or you didn’t get it or it wasn’t until later, and I think I relate, but I wanted you maybe to elaborate on that a little bit more and maybe I’ll just give my two cents on what I think you’re meaning there, because I think I had a similar revelation later on that there is a lot of beauty in how connected math can seem. And sometimes, we don’t get that in school math, especially in, say, my school math from younger grades into high school was very kind of memorization kind of math. And listeners of podcast know that I taught that way for a really long time and recently started to switch when I started to see connections and how things relate to each other.
Jon Orr: And here’s an example we shared many times here on this podcast too is, actually, we just talked about it the other day about square numbers. Like the number four, I just felt like it was, oh, that’s just a number that is two squared. It’s a button on my calculator. However, seeing later on that you can take four and you can make a square out of it but you can’t do that with three, different shapes. And this amazing connection kind of happen. But it wasn’t until I started teaching math that, that happened. So I wanted to dig a little bit on what you meant by you didn’t understand it. And is that similar to how you experienced it? Or would you mind to elaborating a little bit more there?
Francis Su: Yeah, sure. I think one thing that schools do often is teach mathematics as a number of facts or skills, and these are important. It’s important to know number of facts, it’s important to have certain skills, but I think what gets lost easily is all the connections, as you mentioned, that you can make between various facts that actually make math much more interesting and easier to learn. I think the exploratory side of math is what’s harder to cultivate in a classroom.
Kyle Pearce: Yeah, absolutely. So, are we off base if we were to say that your experience kind of was that focusing on facts and skills? And I don’t know if you’re like Jon and I, but we were two kids who people said were “good at math” because we were lucky enough to be able to memorize quite a few things, but we didn’t really understand it. I didn’t think it was beautiful as a student, I just saw it, hey, it’s a subject I should probably do because I’m good at it. People tell me I’m good at it, but I didn’t really understand, I didn’t really have a passion for it.
Francis Su: Yes. My experience is like that in the schools, but I had the fortune of having a dad who sought out extra books for me to read, and things like that. And these kind of opened up my eyes to some of the other sides of math, that although I couldn’t quite understand many of these books, but the stuff that was in that made me think, whoa, hey, there’s this whole other side.
Jon Orr: Mm-hmm (affirmative). There’s a question that we ask all of our guests, the title of our podcast, the Making Math Moments That Matter, we talk about memorable math moments, and this is something we always want to ask our guests. Now it sounds like there’s some moments out there that you just referenced your dad giving you books, but I wonder if is there any other moments, when we say math class, it could be a good moment that helped change your thinking, but it also could be a moment that you’re like, oh man, this always sticks with me every time I think about math class and I’ve used that as fuel for decision-making or any other kind of thinking on math that you might have. But when we just say math class, what pops into your head that was always stuck with you?
Francis Su: Yeah, great question. I’ll pick one, although I think there are probably a number of different ones that one could talk about. I remember when I first got to Harvey Mudd where I teach, one of my colleagues mentioned that he likes to do this demonstration in class where he asked, we’re teaching students to think more deeply about numbers and what they mean, and he asked the question, “If you take a irrational number, is it possible that you could raise an irrational number to an irrational number and get a rational number?” Right, that’s a question, and maybe it’s not necessarily an interesting question unless you’ve been spending a few weeks thinking about what does it even mean to take an exponent, which we were doing in this class.
Francis Su: But what blew me away was the fact that you could actually answer that question without even knowing a specific example of numbers that do that, right? So let’s see if I can do this over the radio.
Jon Orr: It’s always harder, right?
Francis Su: When I thought about this, I’m like, oh, [crosstalk 00:10:14]. But yeah, so here’s that example. Suppose I took the square root of two…
Kyle Pearce: Yup, that’s what I was thinking.
Francis Su: Okay. Yeah, exactly. And then raise it to the square root of two.
Kyle Pearce: Okay.
Jon Orr: Okay. Well, so is that number rational or not?
Francis Su: Well, what do you think? Is it rational?
Kyle Pearce: What do you think, Jon?
Jon Orr: I’m thinking no, it’s not rational.
Francis Su: Okay. Well, my thought is I have no idea. [crosstalk 00:10:42].
Jon Orr: Right. I just guessed.
Kyle Pearce: That’s why I pitched it Jon. I was like, oh, actually, I don’t know.
Jon Orr: I knew it. I didn’t want to say, like, thanks a lot, Kyle, but now, Francis, my thinking here is that root two, I’m going to take root two and… if you said root two squared, that’s root two times root two, that’s going to be a rational number after that, but root two times itself, root two times just doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a rational number.
Kyle Pearce: It just doesn’t sound like anything good can come [crosstalk 00:11:08].
Francis Su: Yeah. Right, exactly.
Jon Orr: Somebody’s going to break here.
Francis Su: Exactly. Okay, yeah. So, here’s the cool thing. Either that number is rational or it’s not, would you agree?
Kyle Pearce: Correct. I would agree, yeah. Definitive.
Francis Su: Okay. Well, if it is rational, if root two to the root two is rational, we’ve hit the jackpot, we’ve discovered an example. Yes?
Jon Orr: right.
Kyle Pearce: Hmm.
Francis Su: Okay. But if root two to the root two is not rational, then it’s an irrational creature, and I can raise that to the root two, people might have to get out a pen and paper to keep track of what we’re doing, but if you take the creature root two to the root two and you raise that to the root two, then because of the way exponents work, if you take A to the B and raise that to the C, that’s actually the same as A to the B times C. The exponent becomes [crosstalk 00:12:03] C.
Jon Orr: Right.
Francis Su: And in this [crosstalk 00:12:05]…
Kyle Pearce: Oh, I’m liking this.
Jon Orr: And then it’s squared.
Francis Su: Yeah. So the exponent becomes root two times root two, which is two, and now raising root two to the two, which is root two squared, which is two, and now it’s two now. So what did that accomplish? Well, we’ve got [inaudible 00:12:22] that are creature which was irrational, got raised to an irrational number, root two, and became rational.
Jon Orr: Right. On either side of those arguments, we have a rational number.
Francis Su: On either side of the arguments, we have an example of irrational to the irrational becoming rational. And at the end of the proof, we know there exists an example, it’s one of two possibilities, but we have no idea whether root two to the root two is rational or not.
Kyle Pearce: And am I right in thinking that this is what you mean by how math can actually be a beautiful thing?
Francis Su: Yes, that’s right. This is somehow, we’ve reached in to the guts of numbers and what they mean, and we come up with this amazing, crazy example. I mean, it’s amazing that you could answer a question of the type we just asked as there exists an example of this without even producing an example.
Kyle Pearce: And something that just dawned on me is that with Jon and I, while we taught in secondary, Jon’s still teaching secondary, and I spend a lot of time in elementary now working with teachers there and thinking about mathematics conceptually and really trying to fill my own gaps that I didn’t get myself, I didn’t have those connections when I was growing up. It makes it very difficult to try to teach conceptually later on when you don’t understand some more basic concepts and why they work and why the conceptual underpinnings. But I see all the work that we’re trying to do to give students opportunities to reason, to get them curious. And in younger grades, curiosity may and look and sound very different than what curiosity could look and sound as we get into older grades, as we mature.
Kyle Pearce: And then obviously, as we head into post secondary, where some people listening to the podcast might be like, I have no curiosity for answering that particular problem, but I’m going to argue that if you’ve gone down this mathematical rabbit hole and you’ve been learning math in this way for years since you were young, that would grow in you and you would be eager to solve problems like this. I’m curious, what are your thoughts on that? And I would love to riff on that a little bit to get your perspective of so many people think that who would want to study post secondary mathematics? And there are so many people that do and love it, and I just wonder if it’s just this huge disconnect from these experiences that both Jon and I, and it sounds like that you, Francis, had growing up, learning mathematics to be only maybe one thing, the skills and memorizations and procedures, and even speed.
Francis Su: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I’m totally with you on that. I mean, I think we certainly can do a lot more in the way we think about teaching to get people to see, they explore to our side. And I guess what I’d like to emphasize is that when a student comes… okay, so let’s talk about college just a little bit since I’m a college professor. When my students come through a math degree, one of the questions I like them to think about is what are you really going to retain from this degree 10 years from now or 20 years from now? What are you really going to end up using? Now, okay, for some of them, they may become college professors like myself and they continue to teach some of the subjects they’re teaching.
Francis Su: But by and large, what they’re really going to end up with are a set of habits of mind, a set of aspects of character that employers are looking for, right? They’re looking for problem solvers, people who can think flexibly. And this is really what they’re coming away with from their mathematical training. And along the way, of course, they see some of these delights about peculiar facts, like square root of two be square root of two, that question, right? But what they really come away with is more of a larger imagination about what’s possible, right? The larger lesson from that example wasn’t the peculiar fact, about whatever root two to the root two is, it was, whoa, I can answer questions that seemingly seem impossible to answer with just a little bit of logic.
Francis Su: There’s the wonder and awe of that, and that’s something I hope every student comes through my classes with some experience like that, where they go, whoa, there is something here and if I cultivate it, it can actually enrich my life. It can actually make me a better person in some ways.
Jon Orr: One of the goals that we’ve also had here on the podcast with our own students is to try to create those moments where kids or students kind of see that. And I like how Kyle had that wonder about what it’s look like in elementary, in middle school, high school, and how can that wonder keep going into post secondary education. And I think that commonality between all of those is, sometimes, there’s real-life situations where math can be empowering to you, but there’s also these situations where this is just like a puzzle that it’s just worth exploring, or a scenario that’s just worth diving into. But I think we agree that one of the biggest goals we want our students to kind of learn from or learn about is that there’s more to it than just memorizing facts and procedures.
Jon Orr: I think this is a good kind of segue into your book, Mathematics for Human Flourishing. For those who haven’t read it or haven’t heard about it, I wouldn’t mind getting you to give us a little elevator pitch or a little bit of intro, maybe an idea of where this came from. I think we’re all kind of seeing where it’s going right now with where it came from, but I wonder, give us a little bit of backstory on the book and what the book’s all about.
Francis Su: Yeah, that’s a great question. My wife tells me, now that she’s heard me give a little three-minute pitch of the book to different people, she says you’re so bad at this.
Jon Orr: He’s not a marketing expert.
Francis Su: Yes. Because the things I lead in with, they’re probably not the things that are necessarily as compelling. So, I’ll give you the version that my wife likes and I’ll give you the version that I like.
Jon Orr: Okay. That sounds excellent.
Francis Su: Okay. So the first and my wife likes is basically to say the book is about, it’s centered around three stories, primarily. One is my own story, in different ways in which somebody like myself who is now a practicing mathematician, even someone like myself has been discouraged from doing math at various points along my journey. And if being told at one point that I wasn’t cut out to be a professional mathematician, which happened to me, if that’s possible for me, think about what we’re doing to millions of kids, right? Why do we think of math as being somehow elitist and only for a privileged few. So that’s one story in the book.
Francis Su: Another story that is prominent in the book is a story of Simone Weil, who is a well-known philosopher, a French religious mystic, about her brother was an amazing, highly-regarded mathematician, one of the best number theorists in history, and she always felt very small in comparison to him in her math ability. She loved math, she enjoyed it, but she found herself making these comparisons all the time, which were very, I think, unhelpful. And so the book sort of traces a little bit of her story.
Francis Su: And then the third story is that of an incarcerated man named Christopher Jackson who is a big part of the asking the question, the question I opened the book with, is why do math, I mean, why is Christopher sitting in a prison cell, studying calculus that he’ll likely never use as a free man. He’s in prison for basically until he’s about 50, no chance of parole, and he’s taught himself math from books. This is not a story about me teaching Christopher math, it’s really a story about me changing the way I’m thinking about math because of Christopher. And he’s contributed letters to the book, he’s getting a portion of the royalties. That’s sort of the human side of mathematics that I think we don’t pay enough attention to, what inspires people.
Francis Su: So that’s why my wife, I think, is why is I think she realizes the compelling part of the book is the human stories. From my own point of view of why I wrote the book is, yeah, I really wanted to change the way people think about math, away from this thing that you and I, all of us had this experience of where math is just a bunch of unrelated facts that you learn. To try to emphasize how math is grounded and what it means to be human, right? If all of us have basic human desires that we long after, right, we long after beauty, we long after truth, we long after freedom and justice and community. And so the book is, really, chapter by chapter, an exposition of how math can contribute to fulfilling these basic human desires. and the aspects of character, I like to call them virtues, that are built when you pursue math in this way.
Kyle Pearce: I’m really fascinated by actually both of your versions because in some ways, I feel like your pitch, at the end of the day, it summarizes, and if you were to dig deeper on why you want people to change the way they think about math, you have three examples there, you have your own story, and actually, I have folks who have listened to many of our episodes, they probably heard this in an episode or two, where I was told by a professor to my face when I was struggling in a course that i didn’t know anything about math and I didn’t belong here, and this is coming from I’m a white guy that has had, I guess we’ll call it the least bumpy road on the way, not that I didn’t have challenges, but I didn’t have racial challenges, I didn’t have the socioeconomic challenges, I didn’t have any of those challenges, and yet I feel like I can relate to maybe a bit of your story, which would be that first story in the book.
Kyle Pearce: And then I’m sure others are probably sitting at home and they can relate maybe to one of the other two. They might have to go a little deeper with the other two stories, and we’re going to come back to Simone Weil a little later in the episode here, but I’m curious, to you, if you were to look at the North American education system as a whole and we were to think about mathematics education and the way we teach mathematics education, I’m looking at these virtues, play, truth, beauty, justice, love, I feel like those are things that are inherent when we’re working with very young children, but then it seems like over time, some of those drift away, and I wonder, what are your thoughts on that, and just in the way that mathematics is taught?
Kyle Pearce: And do you have any, if someone’s thinking to themselves and they’re saying, how do I take that first step to get closer to trying to help bring out these virtues that you’ve referenced?
Francis Su: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, one of the big things that I like to point out is the importance of reflection, which I think we don’t do enough of in math classes, and certainly not at the college level. And so what I’ve tried to do in my own teaching is allow for space for my students to reflect on things like the beauty of mathematics. And of course, that’s going to look different for different people, and so how am I allowing space in my assessments? When I sign grades is, the traditional thing is you give students a bunch of problems on an exam and if they solve the problem, that’s where they get their grade. But how do I signal to my students that I actually want them to reflect a bit on the beauty of mathematics or the struggle that’s important, that’s very important in mathematics? How am I rewarding students for struggling?
Francis Su: Every professional mathematician knows that most of what we do when we’re trying to solve problems is struggle, and it would be a disservice to my students if they came away thinking that math is all about just getting answers. There’s something that’s built in us when we learn to struggle well, when we build endurance, when we develop an unflappable character, and we develop competence to solve new problems. These all happen because I have learned how to struggle with a problem possibly for several years until I find an answer. So how do I signal to my students that, that’s important?
Jon Orr: That’s, I think, a big question I think a lot of teachers actually have because I think we got a lot of teachers right now who are math-loving teachers. These are who are listening to the podcast, and I think they’re thinking, I’m all for this, I want my students to value all these virtues, I want my students to see that there’s more value than just seeing math as a guts-get-done subject. And it’s a big issue, for sure, because teachers are like, I want them but, it goes to what you just said, how do you show kids that this is what you value when you’re really showing them, if you don’t change your assessment practices, right? So if you keep, hey, I’m going to test, I have to give you a test at the end of this chapter and it looks like this and it looks like all the other ones, you’re really showing them what you value.
Jon Orr: And I want to give a shout-out here to a good friend of Kyle and I’s, Al Overwijk, who’s brought this up many times in the sense of Al’s big into the work from Peter Liljedahl and doing work among the boards and having kids explore math, and Al’s always made a point to say, “But if I want my students to do this math this way on a regular basis but then I evaluate them in a different way, well, I’m totally just showing them what I really value.” Even though I’m saying I value these other things, they [crosstalk 00:25:27]-
Francis Su: Let’s walk the walk, right?
Jon Orr: … they still see through it. So the big idea, right, it’s a huge struggle that all of us have to kind of try to figure out. Now there’s no answers here because it’s a big system problem too because it trickles down from universities [inaudible 00:25:41] we’re really concerned about SAT scores, but we’re also concerned about GPAs and marks going into university and how do we get those marks. And it definitely trickles down and people are wondering, well, I really want to do this but I have to give the state exam, or I have to report on these marks. And it’s a big idea and I think one small way that we can start doing this is to regularly embed it into our program and put this kind of stuff, put some exploratory problems into your classroom on a regular basis. Don’t just say it’s problem solving Friday. It’s something that we’ve routinely talked about here on the podcast that we want to teach through problems and have kids struggle.
Francis Su: And reinforce that problems don’t always have to be solved right away, right? There’s a lot of value in sitting with a problem for a while and then pushing through and maybe eventually solving it, right? And I think a simple way that we can all start to do this is to just have 20% of your exams be reflection, right? One question I like my students to answer, I’ve given this a few times now, is describe an example in this class so far where you’ve struggled with a problem and describe how that struggle was valuable.
Jon Orr: Yeah, it’s great. [crosstalk 00:26:55].
Kyle Pearce: Yeah, absolutely.
Francis Su: Yeah, and I’ve gotten some of the most amazing, thoughtful replies to questions like that. And not only that, but it’s also formed the way that I teach. I begin to hear the voices of my students and how they’d overcome challenges, and it’s just a beautiful question that I’m always glad that I’ve asked.
Kyle Pearce: Beautiful. And it aligns so well with here, we talk a lot about, we have a three-part framework. We like to focus in on sparking student curiosity, and again, as we’ve mentioned earlier in this episode, that can look different depending on how old the student is, what grade level their readiness, their mathematical readiness and fueling sense making is another piece of our framework, and that really is honing in on creating that productive struggle. And I loved how you said that, being able to essentially learn how to struggle and being able to almost be graceful about it, right, and being able to kind of shrug it off when sometimes, it doesn’t always work out the way that you wanted it to.
Kyle Pearce: And how we instruct and teach in our classroom to really ask more questions and listen more rather than always doing the telling, I think, is something that we can all do better and help lead us towards a better assessment practice as well by asking students those questions. Again, we’re asking them their thoughts to think and reflect versus us saying, do this problem, or do these problems and I’m just going to mark it and hand it out. So, great discussion here on that and what we value. And I don’t want to run out of time before we get to the second and third story from the book.
Kyle Pearce: And I want to say, I feel like the second and the third story are, at least for me anyway, connected because when you had mentioned the philosopher, Simone Weil, there’s a quote that you’ve brought up in a couple of your presentations and in the book, “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” And, ah, I’m wondering if you can speak to that. And then, I’m wondering if that connects at all to Christopher’s story, who’s studying calculus while incarcerated. And I guess, again, like many listening at home are wondering, why? Why are you choosing to study that out of all of the other things that you could be studying? And I’m curious to hear your insights about that.
Francis Su: Yeah. No, I love that quote, “Every being cries out silently to be read differently,” because I think it really captures a yearning that all of us have and maybe experienced at different times or places in our life where we are misread, where people look at us and they think we’re not capable of doing this, and we want to show them that we can. And I think in mathematics, it’s very easy to mislabel and mislead other people, and that’s part of what I spend much of the book trying to unpack is ways in which we do get misread and ways in which we, maybe out of good intentions, misread people or push people away from math.
Francis Su: It’s very easy for us to say, “Oh, no, no, no. You should go do a career in something else because math isn’t for you,” right? Or, “Girls don’t do math. They’re not good at that.” Or maybe you’re a parent, you say, “Oh, I don’t have a math gene and neither do you,” right? So, somehow these are all limiting statements that I think it’s a lot easier if people often do this to groups of people who aren’t traditionally seen in mathematics, and that includes women and people from underrepresented groups and first-generation college students, for that matter.
Jon Orr: So, yeah. So, I mean, with Chris, his is a very poignant story because he landed in prison for armed robberies that he committed as a teenager. We had in the U.S. very harsh sentencing laws, and so nobody was hurt in these robberies. And there’s also the bad math of prison sentencing. So, he landed in prison on two charges, either which would have given him seven years, but when you put them together, because of stacking law, seven plus seven equals 32.
Francis Su: Yeah, it’s kind of a shame that he made a few mistakes and now, he’ll be an old man by the time he gets out. And so he’s dedicated himself now, while he’s in prison, to bettering himself and learning not just math but he’s reading economics and philosophy and history, and he’s helping other people learn mathematics as well and get their [inaudible 00:31:18]. So, it’s a redemption story. It’s basically his story, and I wish more people would see the potential that all of us have or not clouded by the judgments we make.
Jon Orr: It sounds like it’s a great story of redemption and definitely of, say, misjudging of who is a mathematician and who is not a mathematician. I think that’s going to be a great story to read there, for sure. It brings up lots of wonders here on our end, for sure. And I think it may tie to Chris’ story and some of the other things is that we’ve talked about the virtues of play, truths, beauty, justice, love of why we’re studying mathematics and maybe, as I said, related to Chris’ story. But I’m wondering, and I’m sure, your personal preference of what is most important when studying math, one of those or a combination of those, has changed over time and can change with the time. So I’m wondering, right now, what do you think is, say, most important in learning mathematics? What virtue is so important of why we’re studying mathematics for you right now?
Francis Su: Yeah, that’s a great question. By the way, just to clarify a little bit, I like to think of these broad categories, desire for truth, their beauty, these are the desires. And then out of pursuing math through that desire, you build certain virtues. If I desire truth, one of the things that does for me in mathematics is I start learning how to thirst for deep knowledge or deep investigation. I learn to think for myself, I learn to have a little bit of intellectual humility, and these are all things that I think of as virtues.
Francis Su: And in our current moment, I think one of the… I mean, well, I guess there are probably couple things that I think are really relevant right now. I mean, one is the importance of unpacking what’s true. We’re in one of these moments where people, without thinking forward misinformation without realizing it because they don’t bother to check do any deep investigation to figure out what’s true, right? And so we have a very polarized society and people are just, it’s kind of what happens in math class, you learn facts about understanding why they’re true. And we need to have a society that actually does the hard work of thinking and evaluating what’s true and what’s not true, and what math does for you.
Francis Su: One of the best things that math does for you is it gives you the ability to say to myself, “Yes, there is something here I can figure out for myself. I don’t have to take every fact given to me on authority. I can actually make some sense of things,” right? So that’s one thing and I think is really relevant in the moment.
Francis Su: I think another thing that’s really relevant is understanding what it looks like to do math and think about math from the justice angle. If mathematics really exists for human flourishing and not just as a means of proving how much better I am at something than other people, then we really have to understand and think about why isn’t everybody flourishing in mathematics. And so one of the virtues you develop when you think about this is empathy for the marginalized and empathy for the oppressed. And so these are things that I think are really relevant in the moment that we need to spend more time and emphasis thinking about in our mathematics practice.
Kyle Pearce: Absolutely. That was very well said, and we couldn’t agree more. There’s so much going on right now as we’re actually recording this. And for us and for Jon and I, we’ve been reflecting a lot on what is our why. And we thought our why originally was similar to yours where we wanted students and parents and people in general to change their perspective of mathematics. We wanted essentially them to see the beauty, to see that mathematics, that everyone can do mathematics. There is no math gene and we all can do this.
Kyle Pearce: And when we started digging even deeper, reflecting on some of the events that are going on right now, where, especially the black community and the struggles that they’re going through currently, and, I mean, have been going through but just haven’t been so visual or brought to the forefront like they are currently, it makes me realize that why do we want every student to be able to believe in themselves that they can do mathematics? And it’s for exactly that, is to level the playing field, to make access and equity key so that every student, regardless of their background, the color of their skin, whether they are in a high socioeconomic neighborhood or not, they believe and know that they can be successful in mathematics. And in turn, can go on to do essentially anything that they choose to do in life.
Francis Su: Yes. We like to think of education as the great leveler, right? But it can only be that if we pay attention to the ones for whom it’s not worked historically and try to remove the barriers that keep people from accessing what’s great about education.
Jon Orr: Definitely. Basically, we have action items, right? We have to think about what can I do to remove those barriers in my own classroom, what can I do to remove those barriers in my own neighborhood, with my family. Like Kyle kind of said, we initially thought, let’s create great math lessons, but it’s way deeper than that if we want kids to experience the power of mathematics in the sense that it can do so much more, like you’ve articulated here, Francis. For each of us, we have to address these barriers and have to try to remove them systemically.
Francis Su: One way to just begin doing that is to listen to our students more. Rather than say, oh, this isn’t right, or that’s not right, think about what they’re saying and pull out of what they’re saying. Under every bit of student thinking is some nugget of insight. And so how can we affirm the insights that students bring to us and build on that rather than just say, no, don’t do it this way, do it another way?
Jon Orr: Exactly. And that can be as small as an insight in a strategy that they’re working on, on a problem but it also can be a suggestion of how lessons are run in your classroom, or anything, or a rule that exists in your school. So, a great suggestion right there, Francis.
Jon Orr: We don’t want to take up too much more of your time, even tough I think we could keep chatting about this. We want to respect your time. We want to thank you for joining us. And also, before we kind of sign off here, we want to let you give everyone opportunity of where they can learn more about you and the work you are doing. Is there a website that they can go to, or next step that you have for everybody to keep kind of learning the way we’re learning right now?
Francis Su: Yeah. You can google my name. And of course, the obstacle’s going to be spelling my name. My name is Francis Su. F-R-A-N-C-I-S and last name is S-U. I have a website, francissu.com, where you can find resources. In addition to the book, I’ll mention, because it ties into your podcast, Making Math Moments, I have a website that has a bunch of what I like to call math fun facts, which are three to five-minute things you can do to start a class with a cool math fact. If you liked two to the root two thing, you’ll find 200 more examples of that.
Kyle Pearce: Only 200 more, right?
Francis Su: Yeah. The easiest way to find that is just to google math fun facts.
Kyle Pearce: Awesome. Math fun facts. We will definitely add that, and that’s something that I may have stumbled across it, but I did not know that you had created it. So, that’s awesome. I will definitely grab that link and add that in, as well as the link to the book. Francis, we can’t thank you enough for taking some time to chat with us about mathematics. The Math Moment Maker community thanks you. And I’m sure, we will definitely be looking to get your back on the show at a later date. So, thanks so much and have an awesome afternoon.
Francis Su: Thank you so much. It’s been a lot of fun.
Kyle Pearce: It was great to welcome Francis on to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast. Thanks so much to Francis for sharing his wealth of experience in mathematics, his personal story, and what a great resource and a great read for folks to pick up by going and grabbing that book.
Jon Orr: Have you registered for the Make Math Moments Academy yet? Remember, we have a first 30-day free trial for any math moment maker from around the world. You can access academy professional development courses, including our latest course on how to make math moments from a distance.
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Kyle Pearce: Show notes and links to resources from this episode can be found at makemathmoments.com/episode82. That’s makemathmoments.com/episode82.
Jon Orr: We release a new episode every Monday morning, so keep an eye out for our next episode.
Kyle Pearce: Well, math moment makers, until next time. I’m Kyle Pearce.
Jon Orr: And I’m Jon Orr.
Kyle Pearce: High fives for us.
Jon Orr: And high fives for you.
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