Saturday, January 21, 2012

Guinea pigs

I have to admit some trepidation on my part going into the second meeting of my MLA course this past Thursday. Despite my strong record of teaching in mathematics, I have relatively little experience in leading wholly discussion-based courses, and this inexperience coupled with my sense that a few folks in the class are leery of mathematics in the first place made me worry that the conversation we'd have together would fall flat. Though it took a little while for the conversation to get going, my fears soon proved unfounded.

We began in small groups, where I dealt myself into a conversation with the two older gentlemen in the class, both of whom expressed some measure of skepticism about the reading. Uriah seemed appalled by Dehaene's seeming to alternate between making claims of revolutionary understanding of the brain's functioning and retreating to more palatable and defensible observations. Quinn seemed to accept some conclusions but was put off by the relative (to mathematics) lack of "rigor" and less rigid notion of "proof" in psychology literature. I found these reactions heartening, as reasoned skepticism is generally salutary, something to be expected: these two men are among the more mathematically experienced in the class (surpassed only by Bonnie, a former UNCA math major whom I taught in Abstract Algebra back in 2008!), and the insistence on rigor is a more traditionally masculine trait.

When we returned to a full-class conversation, many more ideas came out, primed by my request for each student to identify those aspects of the reading they found most intriguing, most confusing, and most well-received. It would be difficult for me to summarize all of what was said, so I'll focus on a topic we spent much of our time, dealing with the following image:

I crafted this image last spring for my Ethnomathematics course, in order to serve as a Rorschach test of sorts, testing respondents' notion of numerosity. For the longest time I've found it fascinating that as a species we tend to distinguish objects based upon contiguity and connectedness, "topological" aspects, not on color, shape, or other more "geometric" aspects. That is, most people will respond, if asked "How many objects do you see here?" that there are four, for there are four noncontiguous bodies present.

This, however, is the unskeptical answer, unaffected by the sort of "questioning bias" that doomed the Piagetian experiments Dehaene outlines in Chapter 2 of his book. Specifically, when asked to decide which of two rows of small objects is greater in number (the lesser quantity being arranged in a longer row so as to mislead), young children will often respond incorrectly simply because they suspect trickery on the part of the questioner. In our situation, the skeptical respondent, suspecting trickery, might respond (as did Quinn in my MLA class) "one," seeing a single paw, or even "two," differentiating the two objects on the basis of color and not contiguity.

For quite a long time we discussed the evolutionary advantage of enumeration based on contiguity, and various related questions came up: what would have to be true of a species whose members enumerate objects on the basis of other aspects? What could be said of their mathematics? Can a mathematics of "continuous quantity" model our "discrete" mathematics fully and effectively?

If nothing else, everyone in the class wanted to learn the likeliest response to the "how many" question above...if the question could be posed in a less leading fashion. "I've got a sample of over 60 students I can test tomorrow," I said, referring to my Calc III classes. "Why don't I get some more data?" The students loved this idea, and we debated how the Calc III students should be prompted for the purposes of this informal survey. It came down to between "What do you see?" and "Describe what you see." People seemed more satisfied with the second, as it seems to beg for a more elaborate response, increasing the likelihood of a description featuring some kind of numeric content.

Yesterday I began both sections of Calc III with the experiment, providing no context beforehand, so as to minimize bias in the students' responses. (I did inform them of my intent afterward, and gave them all the option of retrieving their responses if they'd prefer that they not be read by others. I hope that no one on our IRB is reading this...) I've not yet looked over the responses, but I'm already looking forward to the analysis we'll do this coming Thursday night. I'll be sure to post some sort of summary results here once we've had a chance to sort it out.

Anyway...I'm counting last Thursday as a success. I think this course is going to run itself. I'm not so worried anymore.

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