Taking the shock out of teaching maths

15 March 2017 | StoryYusuf Omar. Photo Robyn Walker.
​​​​​​​Dr Jonathan Shock aims to remove the notoriety from one of UCT's most feared courses: MAM1001W, the dreaded whole-year maths course for first-years students.
​​​​​​​Dr Jonathan Shock aims to remove the notoriety from one of UCT's most feared courses: MAM1001W, the dreaded whole-year maths course for first-years students.

2016 was a great year for teaching at UCT, at least if you go by the number of people that won a Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA).

Dr Jonathan Shock, who convenes a dreaded first-year mathematics course, was one of six awardees for 2016. This after 64 nominations were submitted for the coveted award. Yusuf Omar spoke to the senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics about what makes his teaching tick.

Why did you become a teacher?

I wanted to be a researcher, first and foremost, and teaching came with the job. While it had not been why I got into this career, it quickly became a hugely important and very enjoyable part of it. The idea of being able to open people's minds and expand their worldview, even via a subject as abstract as mathematics, was something which really appealed to me.

What do you enjoy about teaching?

The thing that I enjoy most is also often the thing which is most challenging. How do I get into the minds of students who come from such different educational, social and cultural backgrounds? How do I teach a class of 200 to 300 students who see this subject in such different ways? I enjoy taking a student who is very fearful of the topic and getting them to understand that they can succeed at it.

What do you believe makes a good teacher?

Empathy. I think that a good teacher must be able to see a subject from their students' points of view. I don't always succeed, but it is always my goal to have in mind what the student will and won't know during a lecture.

How would you describe your teaching style?

Chalk and talk. I like to use the blackboard as it keeps the pace more manageable. I like to talk a lot, and I don't expect students to get every detail during a class. I want them to come away at the end of a class with a general idea as to how a concept works. They should then be able to figure out the details by going through the notes that I produce for them after the class. Mathematics builds through practice and intuition, and the practice element of it has to be done outside of the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable moment in the classroom.

I remember talking about a particular topic called Taylor polynomials – a way by which we can write a potentially complex mathematical object into a sum of very simple pieces. I talked through the underlying ideas to a completely hushed class, everybody staring, straining their brains to follow. When I stopped, I heard a gasp from a woman at the front of the class. She turned to me, eyes open and said, “Wow, man ... that's deep!” It was a lovely reaction to get.

What is the importance of the recognition that comes with the DTA?

Teaching takes a great deal of effort, and for me, it is an experimental process. Some experiments work, and some experiments fail miserably. I have certainly tried many things in the classroom which didn't work at all, but some have been very positive. Receiving the DTA means that this experimentation is valued, and I think that to be an effective teacher, we need the freedom to find what fits for us, and our students.

How do you balance teaching and research?

To be honest, balance is one of the hardest parts of the job. The administration which comes with teaching and convening a large course is hugely time intensive, and so having focused time to research is not easy. I try and take extended chunks of time to do my research, outside of teaching time.

When he's not teaching, what does Jonathan Shock do?

Cooking and the gym are my two, complementary, ways to relax. I also try and get away for a weekend of reading in the countryside as often as possible.

Taking the shock out of teaching maths

One first-year maths course that you teach is notorious. How have you endeavoured to teach it differently?

I think that it's very important to let students know that they absolutely have what it takes to succeed. I think that a large problem with MAM1000W has simply been its notoriety. It is a fast-paced course and we pack in a lot, but I truly believe that just about every student who takes it not only has the ability to pass, but to pass well. Starting the year off in a good way is key, so I strive as a convenor to make people understand that they have a lot of support around them in terms of resources and that they can and should use these resources as much as possible.

Is there anything else you would like to add or mention?

Only that as a lecturer, I have received a lot of amazing support and feedback from many other lecturers as well as students. This is a strange profession, where we are expected to be experts in the field of teaching though we have never received any formal training. Without good communication channels between students and lecturers, this is a very difficult task. So I urge all students to be as open as possible to giving useful and constructive feedback to their lecturers whenever it is called for.

I, for one, am always happy to hear how I could be doing a better job. It's the only way I can improve.


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