4 min read

Think about your audience

This is the third in a series of six blog posts connected to the Outreachy internship. Sometime during my last year as an undergraduate in Biology, I started tutoring high-school students in math.
Think about your audience

This is the third in a series of six blog posts connected to the Outreachy internship.

Sometime during my last year as an undergraduate in Biology, I started tutoring high-school students in math. Math is a subject that has always come easy to me so it felt like an obvious choice. Also, it's the number one subject students struggle with, at least in high school. However, it soon became obvious that having an intuitive understanding of math wasn't going to make me a great teacher. On the contrary, it made it more difficult to see the subject from the struggling student's perspective.

During the 90s, there was a period when Magic Eye pictures were very popular. A Magic Eye picture, or autostereogram, is a 2D image made of horizontally repeating patterns. If you look at it in a certain way, a hidden 3D image will emerge from the chaotic pattern. These brain teasers used to appear in the glossy magazine that came with the newspaper on Sundays when I was a kid.

Can you see the hidden image? Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

Some people see the hidden image almost immediately, but most find this extremely difficult for the first time. A small minority are unable to ever see it at all, but this is mostly due to innate conditions affecting the eyes. You can probably see where this is going. There's a technique to seeing the image, and almost everyone can learn to apply it if shown properly - or even just left to explore for some time. But if you ask those who see the picture without any effort, chances are they're unable to explain how they did it. Magic Eye pictures are just for fun. If you don't see the hidden image, it's no big deal - you can just move on with your day.

Math, however, is taught to everyone all the way up to high school, whether students are going to pursue STEM subjects later or not. And many students don't immediately see the hidden picture behind the repeating patterns of arithmetic and geometry, of algebra and calculus; never understand how seemingly disjoint concepts are part of a united whole; never see the beauty in math.  There's a famous article on this subject by mathematician Paul Lockhart, A Mathematician’s Lament. Here's an excerpt -

But I digress. My first student, Julia, was preparing for the Spanish university entrance exams. She wasn't going to study anything math-related in college, but never mind - the entrance exams aren't there to assess you based on any knowledge you're likely to need in the future but to make sure high school has had the desired effect. Julia had long ago decided that she just wasn't the kind of person who "gets math". She of course didn't see the beauty in math. She didn't know there was beauty in math. And I wasn't the right person to help her discover it, either.

What do you mean it's not beautiful?

Before you get too worried about poor Julia, let me just get this out of the way: she managed to pass her math exam. She even got an excellent grade and made it into her school of choice. But I was still a failure as a math tutor: I had been able to teach Julia how to solve the type of problems that were likely to show up on an exam but I was utterly unable to make math "click" for her the way it was doing for me.  

Teaching math was for me a frustrating experience for a reason most of us encounter to some extent in everyday life: when communicating with other people, we often unwittingly assume they have the background to understand. This phenomenon even has a name: the curse of knowledge. Once we learn something, we forgot how it was to not know it. The easier it is for us to learn a difficult subject many other people struggle with, the harder it is for us to see the problem from their point of view and help them effectively.

From this perspective, the post title - think about your audience - is not only relevant to my experience as a mediocre math tutor, but also to my internship at Wikimedia. The Wikimedia tech and data ecosystem present somewhat of a steep learning curve to newcomers, such as myself. And my overarching internship goal is to flatten this curve if even just a little, to make it easier for others to get started using the available data and tools in meaningful ways. But each time I learn something new, I feel myself sliding away a tiny bit from the newcomer's perspective - well this is obvious to me, surely it must be obvious to everyone else as well? - balancing on the edge of knowing enough to be worth transmitting, but without losing the ability to relate to those who do not yet have that knowledge. Finding that balance is always a challenge.