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Every Student Podcast: Eddie Woo

Australia’s favourite maths teacher and ‘Local Hero’ Eddie Woo chats with Mark Scott in a special episode recorded live at the University of Sydney.

Transcript

Mark Scott

Hi, I’m Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. Today I am in conversation with Eddie Woo. He is a passionate educator who shot to fame on the back of his incredibly engaging Woo Tube show with more than half a million subscribers and he spoke with me about how he got into maths and how you and your kids can too. He joins me for a special episode of the Every Student Podcast recorded live on stage at the University of Sydney as part of the Sydney Ideas series. Thanks again to the organisers for their kind permission to reproduce the audio here for our listeners.

Mark Scott

We first met a couple of years ago when I started at the Department of Education and I remember I gave a speech where I talked about our project was underway to clone Eddie Woo, because we’d heard that great things were underway in Cherrybrook and the teaching that you were doing there and the new Woo Tube site that you’d built. These last two years have been absolutely amazing, haven’t they? All of a sudden you have gone from being a little figure online running maths lessons to Australia’s most famous teacher. How has that happened and why has that happened do you think?

Eddie Woo

Mark, I am just like you, asking that question myself. I think back to when I was first arriving at Sydney University and that was where I actually made the decision rather than teaching English and history which I still very much love and were the subjects that I was good at school then took this turn and it was a very Gwyneth Paltrow “Sliding Doors” moment for anyone – ok people get that joke, fantastic, thank you – it was a very dramatic shift from what I’d originally planned. If you told me back then – that would be more than fifteen years ago – that this was going to happen I would have laughed at you, in fact, I am still somewhat laughing. But for me, it is really touched on, you talked about Woo Tube for me has taken on a life of its own in that I never told anyone “go and watch these videos”. I never required my students to, like “make sure you clock on and have all the videos in order”. People are doing this in and of themselves, in fact all around the world, so I guess for me the lesson I have taken from that is that people really want to understand, they want to learn. In fact, there are other barriers and people have this stereotype of maths being a hard subject that people don’t want to engage with, but I think they deep down really do.

Mark Scott

One of the things that people often say you even eluded to yourself is that “I am not good at maths” or “I am not a maths person”. Do you believe that really people aren’t good at maths and that they are not maths people or they haven’t understood it in the right way?

Eddie Woo

I think it is an enduring misconception that there are people who are ‘neurologically different to the rest of us’ and they just have a brain for maths. I guess one of the things that I would say is that I like to picture mathematics a bit like a sense. Now we all have different senses; some people really do have phenomenal amazing eyes, ears, taste buds that are clearly different to the rest of us but we are all seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, that is part of our DNA. While some people may be quicker at adopting mathematics or perhaps more able to do mental calculations accurately than others I think what mathematics is really about, and what I am trying to get at tonight, is trying to understand and appreciate patterns and be able to think logically and solve problems in a critical and creative way. Those are things which belong to all of humanity and I really think maths is for everyone.

Mark Scott

Was that a discovery you made yourself because you do tell the story about turning up here and on day one thinking you are going to be an English teacher, a drama teacher maybe and all of a sudden you are teaching mathematics. Through high school, when you were a student did you see yourself as a mathematician? Were you a maths geek? Did you really love or did you come to love it and come to understand it?

Eddie Woo

When I was at school there was a clear division between those people who they were going to go all into mathematics and they would do mathematics and physics and all the sciences and it almost seemed like that pattern of study was a bit of a profile and I did not fit into that profile at all. I did the highest level of English, four units of it, three units of history, two units of drama in my tiny little HSC drama class and I didn’t think of myself in those lines at all, it was very much a gradual journey. For me, that is one of the big reasons why when I go into my classes – and I hope this is something for all the students here, and not just the students but for the parents, who maybe feel like “well, it is over for me, school was a long time ago” – it is never too late to open the door of mathematics because I think that development and that understanding can be grown.

Mark Scott

Tell us about how that happened with you. You are a young adult here at Sydney University, all of a sudden you find yourself training to be a maths teacher. Can you remember moments in your journey where you thought “actually I get this and as I get this I am really loving this and I want to share this with others”?

Eddie Woo

There were many different moments just like that Mark. I remember for me when it clicked that the reason there was a difference between the way I experienced maths from age 19 onwards, which is when I started university and continued to become a mathematics teacher, and before, for me I think the way I would summarise it is there was a difference in purpose. I wasn’t doing necessarily different maths, but the reason why I engaged with it was not anymore to just pass an exam, get some marks, be able to get an ATAR (it was UAI back then) and to say “okay, great, I finished school”. I realised doing maths for that purpose let me skim on the surface of what mathematics was when I could answer a question and get what I thought was the number that I was supposed to get I then said great case closed I can move on. I didn’t realise it was about searching for insight about a deep understanding of things and when I got to university I started to learn mathematics for a whole different purpose. It was to try and convey with the authentic reason ‘why does this matter?’ and I realised that I had to know mathematics in a much deeper way and that is what changed things.

Mark Scott

One of the really interesting early slides that you had talked about how good mathematicians fail, whereas you talk about your school days and it is all about getting the answer right,checking the back of the book, ‘did I get it right?’. Tell us a little bit about how we learn from failing because I think most of us would think at school it is all about getting it right and not failing.

Eddie Woo

One of my favourite researchers in education is a man named Dylan Wiliam and one of the quotes that grabbed me the first time I heard it – and I hope you all take it to heart when I say it tonight even if you have heard it before – is that “if you are doing work and you make mistakes from the teachers point of view I interpret that in this way; that those mistakes are a sign that the work that you are doing is hard enough to make you learn, that your mistakes are an indicator, a signal to you, yes this work is challenging, that is why it is going to assist you in learning”. By way of contrast if you had a worksheet and it had fifty questions on it and you just effortlessly got every single one right, that might feel good for a moment like “yeah I have all the right answers” but you haven’t learnt anything in completing that worksheet, you have made no progress, you have never challenged yourself to think “okay I don’t know how to encounter this problem, I am going to need to seek help, I am going to have to try a different approach”.

Mark Scott

How important do you see it now for the educators in the room and for the parents of children in the room that we need to teach them how to fail well and teach them how to find success by having a journey through failure or real challenge and getting it wrong, not understanding and not being defeated by that?

Eddie Woo

If there is one thing that comes up so frequently when I talk to parents and especially being a parent now thinking about the obvious question is “how do I help my child in maths?” and most parents come to me with a panicked look in their eyes and “I have to learn calculus, how do I this, I can barely manage times tables?”. The key is not about the amount of mathematical knowledge that you have – unless you have a huge amount and you are an engineer and that is good for you. But for the rest of us mere mortals, in fact, the much more important thing is not the knowledge you transmit, but the mindset that you can instil. One of the most heartbreaking things is that as head of mathematics I often have students come to me and say Year 10 or 11 and they want guidance on “what level of maths should I take?, which course should I select?” Hundreds of times every year I will have people come to me and say “I think I should choose this easy level of maths because I don’t want to struggle. I don’t want to struggle so I want to take this level of maths”. Now I understand the intent behind that, it is a very natural response, but it is the complete opposite of the conclusion that I draw. Struggle is where you learn. Where there is struggle, there is hope for discovery. I want to encourage the parents in the room when you see your kids racking their brains over homework or you yourself look at those symbols on the page and it looks all like Greek to you – sometimes it is literally Greek, in fact – I want you to embrace that struggle. Your children will learn from you, whether it is just “oh you know what, don’t worry, that is too hard, go and do something else that you find more naturally easy”. Leaning into that struggle and persisting in that is something that we get from our parents.

Mark Scott

I have also heard a great technique is to get the kids to teach you, if you don’t know it. One of the real tests if you really know something well, is whether you can explain it to someone else. And to get your kids to engage with you and try and explain to you what they have been learning is actually very powerful learning for them as well. I met your daughter, she is pretty smart, she is pretty cluey – the new improved version I think. But we have got an issue with girls and maths in this society, that fewer girls are doing demanding maths and demanding science courses and that whole conversation we had earlier about perhaps girls being more likely to think that they are not good at maths. What are your messages for the girl mathematicians in the room and how do we encourage more girls to really engage with mathematics in a strong way?

Eddie Woo

For me, as a teacher of ten plus years, I have puzzled over this and also seeing my own daughter engaging with this, I was quite amazed how early that began. I deal with children from age 12 to 18, but at age 7 or 8 – I am delighted that there are people in this room right now who are ages 7 and 8 and some even younger that – is where those positive mindsets really begin. So it is never too early to start. I think one of the things that is amazing about girls, or maybe I should say it is disappointing about boys, is that girls are so much more quickly and deeply aware of their social surroundings. I mean the typical boys in my classrooms they will put up their hand and I will say Johnny that was wrong and they will go “whatever I don’t even care” and move on. And they forget about it very quickly but the girls, I think, are far more aware of how are people thinking of them, the boys just couldn’t care less and that is a superpower. That awareness that those girls have can sometimes be a bit a kind of counterintuitive challenge to them when they think ‘oh’ regardless of whether they are good mathematicians or not.

Because when I teach mathematics extension two, the highest level of mathematics, when I have girls in my class they are routinely my best students; highly methodical, very accurate, creative in the way that they approach problems and bring different perspectives into things, they are excellent. There is no physiological or neurological disadvantage that they have, but they often don’t back themselves and question themselves a little more easily. That is a great strength to have when you want to think carefully is this answer the right answer, I want to question that rather than just going full head in without being critical about it, but if it lets us question ourselves as mathematicians, I think that is where the wheels fall off.

Mark Scott

One of the challenges, I think, about maths is that it seems to be a series of building blocks of learning and sometimes there will be gaps, things that we didn’t really understand, the classes that we missed, lose a bit of confidence and so even if you feel that you want to be good at maths and you want to apply yourself and you are really interested in the things that you have seen tonight the foundation doesn’t seem to be there. What advice for teachers or what advice for parents and even students who just feel that foundational knowledge that they really need isn’t there and that is what lets them down?

Eddie Woo

It is very true Mark in mathematics one of the things that’s most beautiful about it is how wonderfully coherent all the knowledge and skills fit together. It is a little bit like my daughter loves Harry Potter, she’s read all seven of the books a lot of times over and over again, and one of the things that she constantly tells me about it that is great is that each of the individual characters while you meet them quite separate to each other, the threads all wonderfully intermingle by the time you get to book seven it just crashes together in this wonderful symphony of different moments that harmonise together and show the connections. Mathematics is just like that however the upshot of that is if parts are missing that you are looking for, can you imagine reading Harry Potter and not having one of the crucial characters, just taking out all of the pages that had that character. By the time you get to the end you would be surprised – “what is going on? I am a bit confused” – the pieces have not come together and connected. I think that for teachers I would say there is a reason why, in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, by which we measure ourselves, the first standard, the first way we know how we develop as teachers is not “know content and how to teach it”; the first is “know students and how they learn”. Standard two is “know the content and how to teach it”. That has to come first and I think unfortunately sometimes we let the tyranny of syllabus dot points that I have to get through and tick off on a register take over from what is our real work of helping students along the way.

Mark Scott

As an aside from that, I was wondering what would have happened if you hadn’t changed your mind and become a maths teacher and you were an English teacher or a drama teacher? How does all this apply and your approach to teaching apply to subjects other than maths?

Eddie Woo

One of the things which I think is quite funny is that when I had a colleague of mine come and observe my class – because this happens routinely, we all observe each other to help us develop professionally – I had someone from a different key learning area, someone who is not mathematics come and watch me and at the end of the lesson he said to me “you know, you teach mathematics like an English teacher”. Which I had never really thought about because I don’t spend much time in the English classrooms, but simple lessons like the most basic rule of storytelling – which is that almost every great story has three acts; there is a setup, there is a conflict and then there is resolution – that animates every single lesson that I have so I like to think that the three descriptions that I gave for mathematics do share a lot in common with every key learning area just in a different flavour.

Mark Scott

You are the mathematician but there are three things that I know about this room. I know it is more likely than not that people share a birthday but we are not going to waste time by checking that out, the other thing that I find really interesting that if you are an identical twin you sit in the front row. I find that really interesting.

Eddie Woo

We have got a hundred per cent strike rate on that.

Mark Scott

I wondered if there was something magic about that too. Of all the rows, they sit in the front row. The third thing is that they have really great questions for you and so I want to give the audience warning that in a minute or two we are going to go to the audience so they can ask you far tougher questions that you have got from me.

Eddie Woo

These have been easy ones, I know you’re the warmup.

Mark Scott

One of the things that you are doing with the Department of Education; you are still teaching, Woo Tube is still big, but you are out there teaching our teachers and working with them; primary school teachers, high school teachers, explaining to them how you engage students and how they should reflect and approach on their teaching. Tell us about what you are learning from getting out and about with all the great teachers in NSW and what are your messages for other teachers who want to get a bit of this ‘Woo magic’ into their maths classroom.

Eddie Woo

This is a really hard question to answer and the reason why is because I am spoilt for choice. One of the things that I am learning is that I am learning new things everywhere I go. When I headed to Griffith earlier this year it was an obvious fact out in the Riverina in south-west NSW that we don’t have casual teachers. You know what casual teachers are, when I am sick the principal or the head teacher of admin or the deputy principal will hire a casual teacher to take my place. In Griffith, and in many other regional centres like it, there are no casual teachers. When there is someone away, when Murat calls in sick, we just band together. We just have to take his classes and we have to split them up – they’ll be fine, they are good kids – things like that. I have been all around the country and when I went over to WA seeing the transient population that comes in for a mining boom and disappears just as quickly and seeing the challenges of the teachers there trying to say “you know what; the longest any teacher has been in our school has been three, four years if we are lucky”, and to try and develop a culture there, of positive mindsets, of people being able to say ‘no matter where you are on the mathematics learning continuum you can progress’. Things like that are so hard when there is a revolving door of teachers there. At the same time while those things are challenging I have been super encouraged and I want to declare right at the front that I feel really awkward especially when someone like Judy gives me a very kind introduction like I had before I got on here because that introduction makes me sound like I am very unusual and extraordinary. If there is one thing that I have learnt from going and visiting – I have spoken in front of about 35,000 people this year is that there are amazing teachers everywhere in classrooms around the country and they are just doing their work quietly, uncelebrated for the sake of the children in their care and that has been a huge encouragement. They absolutely deserve a clap.

Mark Scott

Now, we’re going to turn up the house lights so we can see. We’re gonna have a roving microphone, if you have a question for Eddie Woo. I know if you’re a Doctor Who fan you’re known as a Whovian, I imagine this is a room full of Woo-vians.

The first question I can see – right up the back.

Audience member 1

Thanks Eddie, that was awesome. I just want to come back to a point earlier about the discrepancy between genders at university in STEM fields. You touched on why that is, but I want to know if you were the state legislator for a day Eddie, what would you do to change that?

Eddie Woo

You weren’t kidding when you said harder questions. The first one, right out the gate. I will admit that this will sound a lot like a cop out but I actually think after many years it is just reality but I will move on from it. There is no silver bullet for this, there is no “yes we will do this in a day and it will fix everything”. If there were something like that, there are people who are much smarter than me, who have been working at this for much longer than me and they would have found that solution by now. So I want to make sure that–  one of the things that I think is sad is that all of us want an easy solution and we want a solution that fits in a fifteen second sound bite or on a headline; “oh great we will just do this and roll it out and off we go”. I will still say though a couple of things; the first one is one of the big challenges when you touched on gender disparity in all of the science, technology, engineering and maths fields. One of the huge problems is that there is a positive feedback loop, a positive feedback loop is when you have got a situation and because the situation is a particular way it kind of keeps itself like that, it is very stable and what happens is I showed that picture of the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science earlier which is a wonderful event all these different awards; ten men, one woman, and my heart just broke a little bit. Because I know there is amazing work being done by female scientists around the country and we just haven’t quite gotten to that point where it’s as visible as the work that has been done by men. These are things that have been done over the course of 20 or 30 years. I have been really encouraged seeing that tide turn but we need to keep at it. I think things that draw out the great models and ambassadors and examples that we have; they are there and they do exist we just need to tell their stories. The second thing I would say and this is the harder one and it takes a long time is that we have to shift culture. What is culture? Culture is the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and what we believe and if you look at the way mathematics is portrayed out in the real world, out in the media, if you think about the way our leaders respond to it, that negativity is there and you can’t be surprised. We can’t be surprised when that just propagates out and is very difficult to shift. That cultural level is where we need to really change things not just have a program, even a really well funded one, that just operates on the surface and introduces superficial changes. We really need to get at the heart of what people think and believe, their convictions about this subject.

Mark Scott

The only thing I would add to that is I think when you look at participation rates of girls in HSC maths and science it is really easy to think “what is the problem in Year 9, what is the problem in Year 10?”. I think when you start digging into gender, gender identity and how people think of themselves, this is a challenge that goes all the way back into primary school, all the way back into the home and it has been a problem that has been a long time in the making and won’t be easily fixed but we need a holistic solution and engagement to it that fundamentally starts in primary school and starts in the home and brings that transformation all the way through. The next question.

Audience member 2

I think that is a perfect segue because I am astrophysicist.

Mark Scott

Watch out Eddie they ask really tough questions.

Audience member 2

I came back to it at 30 and I didn’t finish maths in high school so I re-taught myself maths. I think my question then is that I found through my studies that there is this real disconnect with what maths can do, the amazing things that it can teach us. In high school I was never told that we can learn so much about our universe by using things like trigonometry and Pythagoras’ theorem and learning how to calculate the mass of stars and amazing things like that. How would you propose that you can actually reinvigorate students’ minds to make those connections with the physical world beyond, just learn calculus and learn algebra and learn that and I can that you are already doing it but how would you suggest other teachers also make those connections as well?

Eddie Woo

Wow, what a great question. There’s a few pieces to how I would respond to that. I think the first thing is it is easy to point fingers and a lot of fault I think unfortunately gets laid at things like “it is the syllabuses fault” or “it is the way we assess”. There are a lot of different ways to cast blame which I think is sad. I think in NSW we are very– I was going to say fortunate but it is not fortune actually it is the work of a lot of people over a long period of time, that we have a syllabus that has been incredibly well crafted and is very coherent and lends itself to all of those applications that you were just mentioning. The question then must become why is it that roundly 90 to 95 per cent of us escape school without perhaps ever having seen those connections? And I can point to at least two reasons. Number one: the way that we assess, while you can’t single it out, is a really important marker because it teaches people what we value. You teach children what you value by assessing it; by measuring it. There are other things that we value but that is a really quick way to say “hey, we are going to grade you on this, and rank you and give you a number that says something about your value in the class”, that is a way to say something is important. Unfortunately a lot of the way that we assess students doesn’t have anything to do with the things that you just mentioned. It doesn’t reward someone who has gone to see all of those weird connections, generally not. It rewards someone who is fast, which is a shame because whilst speed and fluency are a valuable part of mathematics, they are one narrow little slither in the NSW syllabus. We talk about communicating, understanding, problem-solving, reasoning and fluency. That fluency piece is that speed and immediacy of knowledge that we were talking about gets valued and it is one out of five.

So there is that reason, the second thing is that knowing all that stuff is hard. I wrote this book that Mark has in his lap, I wrote it because I discovered all of these things. I physically have been writing the book for two years but I have really been forming these ideas and finding these ideas for the last 10-15 and I just didn’t know any of those things before and I needed the time. Teachers are so incredibly time poor and very distracted and have all kinds of burdens and restrictions on what they can do. We need time to be able to do that and then bring that out so our students can experience it.

Mark Scott

Thanks for the question. Next question – over here.

Audience member 3

Lots of people find it difficult to reconcile English and maths, in fact, lots of people think they are polar opposite and even ideas such as you are either left brained or right brained. So as somebody who was interested in more creative pursuits in high school how do you manage to find creativity in maths and reconcile those two disciplines?

Eddie Woo

That is a great question. I am a bit of a weird creature of two worlds, three worlds, four… I kind of lose count. I think it is a really sad reality that there is this forced dichotomy between these areas of study and I really hope there are some primary teachers in the room who are kind of like “how does that make sense? I teach them all, all integrated, all at once,” and they are very skilled at doing that. The reason why, in high school, we go to these specialisations is because now we want to treasure depth, we want to get to that, and we don’t want to make you the expert of every single thing because of how much knowledge we are just going to have to fit in your brain. Where that changes is where we just, in a collegiate way, make sure we are in the minds and hearts of our colleagues learning from them. One of the best things about Cherrybrook Technology High School is not that it is just big – it is 2,000 students, so therefore about 135 teachers. One of the best factors about it is that we have this enormous combined staff room, about 80 of our teachers fit in there, so you have science and creative and performing arts and technology and languages and they are all there all intermingling together. So often I will hear my visual arts colleagues talking about something which I never knew about but is full of mathematics. In English the number of patterns. I was having one my colleagues try and explain iambic pentameter to me, which is the rhythm in which you can write your poetry, and that rhythm is completely about the patterns of numbering, the amount of syllables you have got and creating something of great beauty. Mathematics and English, I already talked before about how many great stories and surprises in the narrative thread of mathematics there are, for me the most clear way to illustrate their unity is that they all live in one brain. We understand them all as a unity, so if we can contain that together in a way we learn, I think that is the way to bring them together.

Mark Scott

Thanks for the question. Next one.

Audience member 4

Hi, this is a question for both of you. My question is to do with the so-called STEM movement that seems to have been growing for some time now in the education and outside of education world. There also seems to be quite a confusion about what it actually means. In terms of mathematics, I think any advocate wouldn’t deny that it is fundamental to lots of other disciplines and it is fundamental to one's education. So would you say that you see in Australia education seen changing to be in a less siloed fashion? Because if you think about primary to high school, it seems already that disciplines become a bit siloed, and then further on in university and I have admittedly been surprised to meet people from the STEM disciplines who say: “No, I am not a mathematician, I am an engineer.” “But you use maths.” And similarly with teachers or adults who have anxiety wanting to separate themselves. Maybe you could comment on that? Sorry, it is a very broad question.

Eddie Woo

I think that happens in a structural and personal level. We have structures that are about mathematics or about engineering and it necessarily happens because we have people with particular expertise and we say that is amazing you are really good at that can I gather a group of you so that I can tap into your collective experience and be able to take advantage of the fact that there is not just one individual, one in little pockets but a whole group of you who can help each other and help others. I think structurally that does happen but personally, hopefully in the way that I have spoken tonight, I don’t see any division between them and I am very clear to say I will say I am not a mathematician with a ‘big M’ – that is not my job day-to-day. My job day-to-day is students. I am a ‘little m’ mathematician the way every single person in this room is because I look at patterns and I appreciate them around me and want to understand them. In fact, you might think “no that is not me”, but unfortunately, you have no choice. Human beings are pattern recognising machines, we are so good at recognising patterns we even see patterns where they’re not there. Every culture around the planet and throughout history has looked up at the stars and we have created these things called constellations. Do you know what those constellations are? Human beings finding patterns in randomness. We just can’t help it. “Mmm, kind of like a bear, sure why not?” We find patterns everywhere. The gambler's fallacy, paradoxes like some of the ones I mentioned today, we are all mathematicians in that sense. I think the way that we say we are not or we are has to be careful and nuanced.

Mark Scott

A few more questions.

Audience member 5

I am a banker and a mother of two girls, six and eight, and as their friends are seeing Taylor Swift, we are seeing Eddie Woo and they will appreciate that one day. What I would really love to ask is where do you see external tuition fitting in with maths education? Is it just for those who are struggling or should we be investing in that even if your kids do appear to get it at this age?

Eddie Woo

Wow, firstly thanks. It’s a huge–

Mark Scott

Shake it off Eddie.

Eddie Woo

You planted her didn’t you? That is so uncool.

I hope you have found this enjoyable and enriching and something that will stay with you for the rest of your life. When I think about external tuition – again just like before this is a really complex question – there is tuition and then there is ‘tuition’. There is some which is enormously helpful to individual students to come in at a point of need and say “you have got gaps in your knowledge, I can identify that and then help you with those and then you can get back on the horse and off you go, fantastic”. There are other kinds of tuition which are frankly just pumping out an industrial model of education which parents who are very well intentioned and feel like they cannot do anything else, it is like “at least I can throw money at the problem and at least they are spending more time on maths hopefully that will help”. Maybe it does and maybe it is making your child hate maths because they are doing it until 9pm at night after a whole day? That to me is heartbreaking.

I think that students need to be very, very careful and parents need to be very, very careful about how they experience mathematics. Because yes the time is a worthwhile investment, it is a practical subject, but if you are just churning through, often tragically learning things which actually are just machine processes. I have students come to me and they say “I can differentiate, I am really good at that, I am only fifteen years old”. You don’t need to know what differentiation is, but they come to me with this ability to turn a handle on this algorithm this set of steps. Just like me; I don’t know how to bake, but I can follow a recipe. I have no idea what baking powder does or why 180 degrees Celsius is important but I can follow steps. That is okay for a cake because you can still eat it at the end, but that is fatal for mathematics because you don’t know why you are doing any of the things that you are doing. If that is what you are, you are not a mathematician, you are a machine and that is not what we want our children to become. We have to be careful.

Mark Scott

Great answer. One final question.

Audience member 6

Hi Eddie, my name’s William. Thanks for your passion for mathematics. Mathematics is very powerful and I am wondering what do you believe is the most motivational aspect of mathematics for you? Because a lot of people after they have finished high school they have got their marks, they have finished, that is the end of math for them, but really it is a lifelong skill.

Eddie Woo

I alluded before to this idea of mathematics as a sense. It is a way to perceive the world and some people have sharper senses than others – I was born with really horrendous eyesight. I have one eye that is short-sighted and one eye that is long sighted and those young people in the room are like: “Whoa, that’s cool, you can see everything” But the older people in the room are like “no, it means he can see nothing, it is all a blur”. I would never think “oh, I have always struggled with seeing, I guess I am just not a seeing kind of person” but we say that about mathematics. That we struggle with maths; “I am just not a maths person”. For me the best part of mathematics is that it is like slipping a pair of glasses on and the things which were blurry or even invisible before, come into focus and I can appreciate them and enjoy them and solve problems with them whereas before I was like “it is kind of random and I don’t know”. Mathematics is powerful and beautiful and elegant because it allows us to see the world in a way we couldn’t before.

Mark Scott

Thank you for listening to this episode of Every Student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast or if you know someone who is a remarkable innovative educator who we could all learn from you can get in touch with us via Twitter @NSWEducation, on Facebook or email everystudentpodcast@det.nsw.edu.au.

Thanks again and I will catch you next time.

End of transcript.

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Mark Scott

About the Secretary

Mark Scott is Secretary of the Department of Education. He has worked as a teacher, in public administration and as a journalist and media executive. He is committed to public education and learning environments where every child can flourish.

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