Better Explained : An Interview with Kalid Azad

Better Explained : An Interview with Kalid Azad
Here in Singapore, the education system is a highly competitive environment and this means children spend hours on preparing themselves to perfection for exams, even from a very young age. But instead of developing an appreciation for the subject itself, we simply learn methods to get good grades. Kalid Azad, founder and writer of Better Explained, believes this should be otherwise. His site, which has a monthly readership of over 250,000 subscribers, provides easy-to-grasp and fun explanations of common Math problems. His book, Math, Better Explained, has been very well-received on Amazon, with a score of 4.6 out of 5 stars. “Learn Right, Not Rote” is his motto. We spoke to Kalid to see what he thought about the Singaporean method of learning math.
Better Explained provides a really good basis for those who would like to see Math as less of an abstract concept reserved for an elite, and more as something that can really be useful for everyone in their daily lives. When did you start to love Math? And who or what was it that “enlightened” you? I had always enjoyed math as a child in school, but had an extremely frustrating class my first year of college. By the midterm, I was doing poorly and was questioning whether I really enjoyed math at all, or if it was for me. I was cramming for the final exam, trying to get the ideas to click, when some analogies snapped into place – specifically, involving ways to have vectors twist, turn, curl, and so on, in order to visualize them. This “aha!” moment made me realize I could understand a topic if I had the right analogy or way of looking at it. No idea is inherently impossible to understand. It’s just that our explanations aren’t good enough. And what brought you to kick off BetterExplained? After experiencing that “aha!” moment, I started posting my notes online. This collection of articles eventually turned into the current site []. My main motivation was that I wanted to help other people avoid the same frustrations I had when learning. Why do you think there are Math people & non-Math people? I think math is another skill (like writing, drawing, etc.) that everyone has, to some degree. There is natural talent, sure, but most people can become proficient. We can all write, even if not everyone is Shakespeare. I think being a “non-Math” person is everyone’s natural state before being educated, right? Sometimes we just haven’t had enough positive, encouraging experiences with math so we give up or get discouraged. So, if someone tells you “I’m just not Math person”, what would you tell them? I’d say that negative numbers were invented in the 1700s, and even then, were widely distrusted. You already know math than the smartest people did 300 years ago. Math is a way of thinking. It’s a skill that can be built, and it’s within our grasp if taught well; by which I mean in an encouraging environment, with an emphasis for lasting insight, not the test-and-forget style lessons. Realistically, not everyone *needs* to be a math expert, just like not everyone needs to be a writing expert, or a cooking expert, etc. But we should have decent skills and not have fear learning more. Most people aren’t afraid to learn new recipes, but are afraid of learning more math. If you could change one thing about how Math is taught in school, what would it be? I’d focus on learning for lasting understanding, not passing a test and forgetting. We play this game where we think it’s okay to learn something for a test then forget it all a month or year later. What is the point? Details can be forgotten, sure, but the key insights should remain – and we don’t really focus on teaching those. How do you think a teacher can kindle mathematical curiosity in the youngest of children? I think young children are naturally curious. Math is a way to describe and think about patterns. So you can harness that natural curiosity and show how math can help extend it. Kids might like drawing circles – show them other shapes they might like (ovals, squares, triangles). What do they have in common? Can you make a square out of triangles? Ultimately, the teacher needs to have a curious mind as well. It’s hard to kindle that flame of learning if it isn’t there in our own minds. For kids out there who are stressing about their Math exams, do you have any specific tips or tricks? When learning, you want to have sense of when you really “get it” vs. going through the motions. You have to be honest with yourself: did I really understand, or did I memorize a set of steps? Math is cumulative so those gaps will hurt you down the road. Luckily, the Internet is so large that you can find an explanation that works for you. So if you don’t know why a negative number multiplied by another negative number is a positive, look for ways other people explain it! My take is that a negative is like flipping the number on the number line by 180 degrees. So if you flip it twice, you’re back to facing where you started, facing forward. What would you say is the most important thing you’ve learnt about Math in your life? Math is a skill that we can develop throughout life; I’m still learning, and upgrading my understanding of topics I studied a long time ago. Learning shouldn’t stop when you graduate school. So that’s it, I think our users will find this really insightful. Thanks a lot for your help! That was fun, hope that helps! Feel free to leave any questions you may have in the comment box below! Kalid can also be contacted at his website, Better Explained.  

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