Learning How to Think

Learning How to Think

I spent a day recently watching Mike Starbird teach students how to think.

I met Mike in college, and we have been close friends ever since. Fun-loving and gregarious, he grew up in a family of teachers and became one himself. Technically, Mike is the University Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin, but what Mike does day by day, student by student, is teach. 

He queries, cajoles, jokes, pokes, and poses endless pointed questions, instinctively knowing how to draw out the best in each student—or, rather, how to help students draw out the best in themselves. The topic is mathematics, but the subject is how to think.

I pondered these things last week as I sat at the back of his class, observing, during a visit to Austin. The class consisted of twenty students, but I was the only one seated. Mike had them all at the board, working on problems. The students kept falling back on formulas, and Mike would encourage them to draw a picture, then put it into words. Focus on the idea, not a bunch of numbers. Draw, speak, understand, think.   

Watching, it occurred to me that Mike’s teaching methods were remarkably similar to those of a good writing teacher. Use words, yes, but first decide what you want to say. Focus on the idea, not the words. Only then will you write with understanding and clarity.    

“You’re having trouble,” Mike told the class, “because this is hard. Every mathematician has to struggle with this concept. But once you have it, you won’t forget. You’re not memorizing a formula; you’re mastering an idea.” 

And, I would add, you’re not just learning a mathematical proof. You’re acquiring a life skill.  


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