Splash Report – My Best Teaching ever!

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So good. I’ve just spent most of my week-end teaching as part of the MIT splash event, where high school students came in and took classes that went way beyond the high school curriculum. These guys are way smarter than I expected; and they were very, very curious. What a pleasure it was, just to get to interact with them!

On Saturday, I taught a 4-hour class on the math foundation crisis (which I kind of regarded as a warm-up my upcoming Youtube series). The 2 first hours were awesome. Both for me, and — I think — for them. The trouble was, they were way smarter and knowledgeable than I expected, so we went through all of what we prepared in just 2 hours. Seriously. They cracked the infinite hat problem with the axiom of choice in half a minute! So the last 2 hours were improvisation — and it turns out, I’m not comfortable with math foundation to improvise a class on this topic… At least so far.

Sunday was my marathon day. I first taught a 2-hour class on the mathematics of democracy — an field I have done research in. I had a class of hundreds of students — 138 were registered. So awesome. The students were very curious. They asked insightful questions, and proposed clever answers to the numerous questions I asked them. They also elected Batman as the Condorcet winner of superheroes! At the end, I proposed the voting system I have been designing in my research (which hopefully I’ll write and talk about on the Internet soon…). To my surprise, I even seemed to have convinced them that this was the right voting system… But that’s just a detail. What matters is that, for sure, they left pondering the legitimacy of all voting systems that are widely used these days… and that’s a big deal!

Next was a 2-hour class on cryptography and the theory of complexity. This was the only class that didn’t go as well as I had hoped. Somehow, I didn’t manage to connect with most of the students. Perhaps, the long historical introduction I presented was a bit too long. Perhaps, as well, the students started to get tired after over a day of advanced classes all over MIT…

At lunch, I must say, I was a bit afraid. While students started to get tired, I had become exhausted. Would I still find the energy and the voice to present another 4-hour class? Plus, by far, this 4-hour class was the one I prepared the least. Seriously, my slides were mostly pictures of physicists… But as it turned out, this last class would be the one I was actually the most prepared for, as it was about the theories of gravity I have been talking about in my recently finished series on general relativity.

This class was awesome! Step by step, I got the students to almost figure out by themselves the most brilliant thoughts of Galileo, Newton and Einstein. The climax was when I repeatedly asked them: “If gravity is not a force — which is what Einstein claimed — why do apples fall?” It took them a while. They proposed different ideas. Mostly wrong. But that’s okay. Einstein himself got mostly wrong ideas. But, slowly, they got warmer. And warmer. Until, all of sudden, one student said half convincingly: “the ground is accelerating upwards!” Yes! Yes, yes, yes! The ground is accelerating upwards!!!

I had several students thanking me for the classes. Many even said that my classes were the best classes they had attended… which, I guess, means that I’m not such a bad teacher when I don’t have to follow some stupid curriculum (which I had to when I was teaching in Montreal), and where students are not fully focused on some upcoming exam. I guess I actually love teaching. But the conditions need to be right… and I do know that conditions will hardly ever be as good as they were in this amazing Splash event…

I guess Youtube is the next best thing :p. Come on Final Cut, let’s talk logic and math foundation!

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