Tang considers creativity in math

Vincent Matthew Franco
Social Media Editor 

Associate Professor of Mathematics Gail Tang gave audience members a look into the unlikely pair of math and creativity with her presentation titled “Affect and Identity: Considering Math Creativity,” Tuesday in the Quay Davis Executive Board Room. 

There were around 30 students and faculty members in the audience for the hourlong presentation. 

Tang started things off by showing her new anti-motion sickness goggles to the crowd and they burst into laughter as she put the quirky, thick-rimmed glasses on. These glasses are in preparation for her trip to Hawaii to join a group of scientists on-board a research vessel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Teacher at Sea program to study the ocean. 

Before going into detail about the research, Tang introduced her team of researchers that she says are all in different time zones. The group of researchers consists Emily Cilli-Turner, assistant professor at the University of San Diego; Gülden Karakök, associate professor at the School of Mathematical Sciences of the University of Northern Colorado; Houssein El Turkey, assistant professor in Mathematics; Miloš Savić, associate professor in Mathematics and V. Rani Satyam, assistant professor of Mathematics at Virginia Commonwealth University.

This group is a family to her and like most families, she says, they fight a lot, but unlike most families they argue over manuscripts. 

Her lecture goes into depth on three studies, first a published one titled “Broadening Views,” the second is broken in two parts, both being conference proceedings, and lastly she talks about a new, untitled, unpublished paper she calls the interceptions of mathematical creativity and identity.

The entire basis of Tang’s lecture is to shine a new light on math and show people that there can always be multiple ways to get to the same right answer. She and the rest of the researchers believe that with creativity they can break that old notion, and make math a more approachable, inclusive subject. 

“It teaches us a lot of how we can approach a subject in a classroom that fosters creativity, especially something like mathematics which I think a lot of us have preconceived notions about,” Sean Dillion, professor of theater arts, said. “Meaning one straight path to one straight answer.”

Tang goes into two old narratives that dominate the way math is seen creatively; expert view or genius view. She explains that expert view is what determines the definition of mathematical creativity. She refers to an interview done by two white male mathematicians in 1926, who came up with the set model of preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. This ultimately will be the go to blueprint for creativity in math.

Tang points out how this may not be the most inclusive model, notably due to its time of creation and its creator – predominantly rich white males.  

The genius view says that people are born with a natural intelligence for math, and that it cannot be learned. Leaving out large groups of people, automatically placing them in a position where they feel they are not good enough to learn or become better at math.

“Equating innate ability with creativity ignores systemic racism and it also perpetuates this idea that your creativity is fixed, that you can’t develop it any further,” Tang said.

She blames this idea snowballing to being the standard of thinking on generations of professors teaching it over and over again, and it never being questioned. 

In their second research paper, “Broadening views of mathematical creativity: Inclusion of the undergraduate student perspective,” they touch up on two different frameworks of thinking in math. Exploring experiences of diverse undergraduate students, and taking an anti-deficit approach. 

In this study they found six main points that students kept bringing up; Application, action and attitudes, different ways, originality, understanding, and against authority. What it also found is that how a math class is taught, greatly affects the impact it has on the student. And whether or not the student will continue to take math classes. It also showed how it has a bigger impact than grades. 

When it comes to mathematical competence and gender, it showed that men walk out of math classes with a bigger sense of confidence than women did. What this shows is that men will continue with math studies while women come to a stop.

Tang believes one way to beat this is to stop the separation of the arts and sciences. 

“They provide more, so studies are proposing that they provide opportunities toward more equitable classroom experiences,” she argues. “It can rehumanize mathematics, and it can change students’ positionality by viewing themselves as mathematicians.”

The second part of their research was founded by the National Science Foundation and was based on the question “What emotions do students report feeling?” 

Done with three different sets of cohorts, what they found through the pre and post surveys filled out by the subject students was that when students are given the chance to work through math equations or problems they find the class more enjoyable. They even that kind of thinking into other subjects, providing proof that adding more pathways to the answer is accessible in any classroom. 

“It was interesting, there were a lot of good points and I kind of connected it to the way that I’ve learned in my past experiences,” Jenisa Ruiz, sophomore business major, said.  

They also learned through their research that students do much better when teachers or professors use holistic approaches to teaching. But overall, the teaching methods that provide the most “bang for your buck,” according to Tang’s research between these three cohorts are divergent thinking, deemphasize correctness in class, attend to the emotional part of learning and challenge students with open-ended real world-like problems. 

When these methods are imputed into a math or calculus I class, students are more likely to foster their creativity, feel more confident and comfortable. 

As for the professors who were part of the cohorts, Tang mentioned only one, Dr. Watson, which is a pseudonym name. What Tang found notable about Dr. Watson was his spiritual feedback in the last part of the study, the autobiography portion, where he talked about his journey to being a math teacher. His main reason for participating in the study was to simply help out find new ways to tap into students’ natural creativity. 

His experience as a college student and having to ask for help for the first time made him relate to his students now, and understands the vulnerability it can create in them. 

In other autobiographies made by participating students in the study, they said they expected Dr. Watson to be another white old male teacher who is going to just tell them what to do. But what they eventually found was the opposite. What they got was an instructor who allowed them to be creative and got to know him on a deeper level. His gender or a race was not seen as some kind of barrier anymore. 

“If we don’t think from a variety of perspectives, and expand our ability to not only think through other perspectives, but to hear other people’s perspectives, we will not be as inclusive or in a good world like we should be,” Judy Holiday, assistant professor of rhetoric and communication studies, said. 

Vincent Matthew Franco can be reached at vincent.franco@laverne.edu

Vincent Matthew Franco is a senior journalism major with a concentration in print and online journalism. He has been involved in journalism and print media in high school, community college and is now at the social media editor of the Campus Times and a staff photographer for the Campus Times and La Verne Magazine. He previously served as arts editor.

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