Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Communicating Mathematics

This paper by William P. Thurston is officially titled  On Proof and Progress in Mathematics, but what interests me most are his insights about how we communicate math, and how it's learned.

Here are a few excerpts:
The transfer of understanding from one person to another is not automatic. It is hard and tricky. Therefore, to analyze human understanding of mathematics, it is important to consider who understands what, and when.

Mathematicians have developed habits of communication that are often dysfunctional. Organizers of colloquium talks everywhere exhort speakers to explain things in elementary terms. Nonetheless, most of the audience at an average colloquium talk gets little of value from it. Perhaps they are lost within the first 5 minutes, yet sit silently through the remaining 55 minutes. Or perhaps they quickly lose interest because the speaker plunges into technical details without presenting any reason to investigate them. At the end of the talk, the few mathematicians who are close to the field of the speaker ask a question or two to avoid embarrassment.

This pattern is similar to what often holds in classrooms, where we go through the motions of saying for the record what we think the students “ought” to learn, while the students are trying to grapple with the more fundamental issues of learning our language and guessing at our mental models. Books compensate by giving samples of how to solve every type of homework problem. Professors compensate by giving homework and tests that are much easier than the material “covered” in the course, and then grading the homework and tests on a scale that requires little understanding. We assume that the problem is with the students rather than with communication: that the students either just don’t have what it takes, or else just don’t care.

Outsiders are amazed at this phenomenon, but within the mathematical community, we dismiss it with shrugs.


There is another effect caused by the big differences between how we think about mathematics and how we write it. A group of mathematicians interacting with each other can keep a collection of mathematical ideas alive for a period of years, even though the recorded version of their mathematical work differs from their actual thinking, having much greater emphasis on language, symbols, logic and formalism. But as new batches of mathematicians learn about the subject they tend to interpret what they read and hear more literally, so that the more easily recorded and communicated formalism and machinery tend to gradually take over from other modes of thinking.


We mathematicians need to put far greater effort into communicating mathe- matical ideas. To accomplish this, we need to pay much more attention to com- municating not just our definitions, theorems, and proofs, but also our ways of thinking. We need to appreciate the value of different ways of thinking about the same mathematical structure.
We need to focus far more energy on understanding and explaining the basic mental infrastructure of mathematics—with consequently less energy on the most recent results. This entails developing mathematical language that is effective for the radical purpose of conveying ideas to people who don’t already know them.

There's lots more to chew on in the article, check it out.


  1. Hi Sue,

    Thanks for pointing out that my culture might be dysfunctional in a way that I am not aware (seriously---I want to know!).

    I have only skimmed some of Thurston's paper, but do you have a sense of what he means by:

    "Organizers of colloquium talks everywhere exhort speakers to explain things in elementary terms. Nonetheless, most of the audience at an average colloquium talk gets little of value from it."

    Is he saying that speakers do not listen, or is he saying that even if they do put things in elementary terms, there is still a layer of dysfunction that prevents the audience from understanding?


  2. Hi Bret, I've only been to a few MAA meetings. I try to avoid most math talks, and just go to math education talks. (I am not a PhD-level mathematician.)

    So I don't have a well-informed opinion about the interaction in that sort of arena, though I have certainly been at math talks where I understood nothing.

    What's your take on it? Do you think Thurston exaggerates the severity of the problem?

    I was at an AMATYC meeting in the fall, and the keynote speaker (I think it was) had me lost.

    I don't know which he's saying. I do know that after we understand something, it seems so easy, it's hard to remember the work it took to learn it. I wonder if it would help to have panels, where the speaker interacts with other mathematicians, and they discuss the ideas?


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