Keith Devlin is executive director of H-STAR, the Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute at Stanford University. Professor Devlin's Stanford homepage.
Dr. Devlin's blogs:
Mathematics and other stuff
Let's teach the world
Krista Tippett, host: Keith Devlin sees mathematical equations like sonnets. They are reflections, he says, of the inner worlds of our minds. But what most of learn in school doesn’t begin to convey this. And that’s not just because some of us — like me — seem congenitally bad at math. Our brains are not primarily logical, but analogical. And what we’ve asked everyday math to do up to now can be better done by computers. Keith Devlin is also a leader on the frontier of MOOCs, massively open online courses. And he believes that on-line teaching is helping us finally learn how we learn. To be with this mathematician is to glimpse the beauty of “mathematical thinking” - illuminating what it means to be human in unexpected ways.The interview ends with:
Mr. Keith Devlin: Just as a trained musician who can read music can look at a musical score and in their head — in their mind — they can hear that music playing. For a mathematician, the same thing is true. Providing it's in a part of mathematics you're familiar with, you can look at those symbols and in your mind, this mathematical world is created. And you can see the flow and ebb of ideas; you can see it going on. It comes to life in your mind.Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. [Announcements] Ms. Tippett: Keith Devlin co-founded and directs H-STAR at Stanford University, the Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute. He’s also a senior researcher at Stanford’s Center for the Study of Language and Information. He grew up in England, in Kingston upon Hull.
Ms. Tippett: Were you born, bred, raised in Yorkshire? Is that right?
Mr. Devlin: Yeah. I was born in Hull, in what apparently was the worst snowstorm of the decade, in 1947. So I had a very exciting, melodramatic entry into the world.
Ms. Tippett: Which you don't recall.
Mr. Devlin: I don't recall, no. But my mother, who is long passed away now, she told me of the difficulty getting a midwife in and the doctor and anything. The lady next door actually delivered me because nobody could get out. There were snow drifts outside the house of several feet deep, apparently.
Ms. Tippett: And were you drawn to math, mathematics, pretty early in your life?
Mr. Devlin: Uh, no. Not at all. I used to like playing soccer and rugby and rough-and-tumble things. It was sort of a classic, working-class childhood. The mathematics came much later. The only role model I had in the family of anyone who sort of had a degree and a professional career was an uncle by marriage, and he was a chemist. His house was full of books, he would travel around, he had an extensive collection of jazz records, and he lived the life of an intellectual. So my first introduction to anything to do with science or technology or learning in general was to chemistry. But that was pushed sideways a little bit. Just when I was about to or just when I started at high school, Sputnik went up. So I sort of began to sort of think in terms of physics.
Once I decided I was going to go into physics, then of course I realized that I needed to be good at mathematics because that was the key to physics.....MUCH MORE
Ms. Tippett: So this really is my last question. Is there any frontier, right now, that you're aware of, where new things are being learned or new processes are being experimented with that you are watching …
Mr. Devlin: Wow! Where do we begin?
Ms. Tippett: Well, just tell us about one thing that's unfolding that you're really watching with great interest.
Mr. Devlin: Oh! It's the one that I'm right in the middle of, which is online learning. Not because of the fact that we're reaching thousands of people. We're finally beginning to understand how people learn. Here's an analogy: If you went back to the 18th century and you got sick, good luck, because you might find somebody who was instinctively a good doctor or who was lucky, but medicine was just hit and miss by then and depended on talent and whatever it was, on luck. Because it took the development of, first, chemistry, then biology, evolutionary biology, and the developments of modern science on which we can ground medical training.
So, when you go to a doctor today, the chances are that person is going to make you well, providing you at least have a recoverable disease, because we've learned the science on which medicine is built. Science in 200 years, science went from hit-and-miss hunches to a scientifically grounded discipline where the chances were very high that the doctor would be able to help you and make you well.
Right now, in education, we are in the 18th century. We are actually, I think, within a couple decades — of being able to actually improve mathematics education to the point where people actually do begin to get it and get over the hurdles. Because we're beginning to understand it better..
Education is now starting to make that transition, to the fact that, yes, there'll be good teachers and bad teachers and better teachers and worse teachers, but it will all be grounded in understanding. And in the process of understanding how we learn, we are, of course, doing what mathematics has been doing since the very beginning. And as I've been saying, we've been learning about ourselves. Because the more we learn about how we learn, the more we learn about what it is to be human.