… and anagrams. (How cute!)
The Reactionary Approach
The reactionary approach seems to be a default setting of human behavior: people react only when something undesirable happens. Consequently, people have to react every single time something undesirable happens. This is apparently so in politics (especially prominent in 2020). But you can observe reactionary behaviors in all other domains.
For example, parents and teachers often react against technology. It’s quite typical to hear things like “Turn off the video game!” or “Put down your phone!” or “No electronics in class!”
Another common example is doing presentations. Now that most presentations are done with slides, you can find a lot of reactionary advice such as “Don’t put everything on one slide” or “Don’t include irrelavant pictures or animations” or “Don’t use illegible fancy fonts.”
Taking a reactionary approach is totally fine when the problem you are dealing with is simple (like replenishing your toilet paper) or a one-off thing (like repairing a flat tire). For more complex and constantly evolving problems, such as education and technology, taking a reactionary approach is like playing a never-ending whac-a-mole game: you banned gaming, they turned to their phones; you banned phones, they turned to weed and drugs. It never solves the real problem. It is exhausting and can be harmful to your relationships. Maybe we can take a more systematic approach.
The Creationary Approach
What makes me happy is that more and more creative people are taking on the task of improving education with technology.
An early example is the Khan Academy. Khan started by making videos to teach some of the school classes online. This seemingly simple approach enables what’s called the self-paced learning: instead of being forced to sit and listen in class, students can pick their own time to watch the videos; instead of feeling embarrassed to ask questions, students can just replay the part where they were lost. The traditional way of learning is to attend lectures in class and do the homework after. But with the video lectures, students can now watch them at home and do the homework in class (i.e., tutoring). Learning becomes more engaging and more human.
This is what I’d like to call a creationary approach. I see “reactionary” and “creationary” as antonyms (and they are anagrams!):
- A reactionary approach is to react against something only when an undesirable result happens.
- A creationary approach is to create something so that desirable results can happen.
Over the past decades, I am seeing more and more creationary people teaching math creatively with the help of technology. Just to name a few of them:
- Burkard Polster (channel: Mathologer) is an engaging story-teller. He presents interesting maths that are not taught in school, which can really broaden your view.
- Grant Sanderson (channel: 3Blue1Brown) created a math animation engine to make inspiring animations that introduce cool maths to a general audience.
- Cliff Stoll (appeared many times on the Numberphile), among many other creative things, has made strange pieces of glassware to teach topology. (He is also a creative science teacher. I highly recommend listening to his interview with the Numberphile.)
- The recent Computational Thinking course is a collaboration between MIT and the Julia Programming community. It is a terrific attempt to push the limit of distance learning during the pandemic.
It is people like these who have given me a lot of hope and excitement about the future of education.
In our daily life, we often run into a whac-a-mole lifestyle, too. People go on a diet to lose weight multiple times a year. People try to quit smoking many times in their life. People are making the same New Year Resolutions every year.
To take a creationary approach to life means to make choices based on what you are for rather than what you are against.
One trick I often use is to create connections between the things I love doing with the things I think I should do. For example, I enjoy doing exercises because I love listening to podcasts at the same time. I enjoy eating healthy because healthy foods are delicious and it allows me to focus on my research problems for longer without getting fatigue easily. Once these connections become my habits and instincts, doing the “hard” thing feels effortless.
Of course, taking a creationary approach is hard. It is not always easy to know what you are for; it can be very hard to find your purpose; being creative may not always give you the desired result. But I also believe that creativity is something that you can train for: be aware that you can always choose creation over reaction, allow yourself more chances to experiment and to fail, learn from creative people and enjoy their company. Sooner or later, you will encounter your own serendipity.