We at my university regularly sell quite a big lie.
At Open Day and the Ingenuity STEM Showcase and any number of outreach activities, students do puzzles and play with construction toys and walk around with ropes and draw curves on balloons. Whether we say it explicitly or not, there is a message there that says: here at this University, maths is fun. This is a lie.
Maths at university is not fun. There are hours of video content to watch where the presentation is basically slides or handwritten examples. The classes are presentations, possibly with little quizzes breaking them up, or they consist of doing maths problems similar to the relentless weekly quizzes and assignments. Pictures are rare, making sense by manipulating something with your hands is much much rarer, making sense by moving your body is non-existent. The chances to chase your curiosity are few. The chances to have your own thinking validated and celebrated are fewer. It is very far removed from the experience of university maths the prospective students get when they visit us.
We are lying to our prospective students. The experience they have of university maths at our events is a lie.
I do understand that learning does not have to be “fun”, and expecting it to be so all the time is unreasonable and unhealthy. I also understand that ordinary everyday problem-solving and figuring out can feel fun. I understand as well that play, which is essential to learning deeply, is not the same thing as fun. But there is no denying that the activities we do with prospective students are indeed fun, and that experience is not what it will be like at university.
Do I want to change the activities we do with prospective students to look as boring as life will be at uni? Of course not. But there is another way to not lie, and it’s to make your lie true.
One way I make the lie true is to provide One Hundred Factorial, a weekly games, art and puzzle session where students can experience mathematical play without having to be assessed on it. The sorts of things that happen as a one-off at outreach events happen every week at One Hundred Factorial, and I think it would be a good thing to tell prospective students that this exists. (Writing this blog post is partly to help myself pluck up the courage to suggest to the academics in Maths here that they can do so.)
Another way is to actually include some of the features in your outreach activities actually in your teaching. I’ve seen the maths academics do an awesome job of running engaging activities and helping students feel like their efforts are meaningful and valued. They’re good at it. What I want to say to them is this: Perhaps you can actually include some whole-body movement or physical models in your university classes, or at very least in your videos. Perhaps you can actually have some free exploration of new ideas without having to immediately write an assignment about it. Perhaps you can keep the idea of celebrating students’ mathematical thought in the very front of your mind more often when they are doing everyday maths problems or answering questions in the lecture. Even just a little more of any of these things might make university maths a little more like the outreach activities you do so well.
The experience prospective students have in your outreach activities doesn’t have to be a lie. You can make the lie true.