March 06, 2011

You've seen the videos that Vi Hart has been producing featuring what she calls doodle games related to various topics in math, right?  They made the rounds of the science and physics blogs towards the end of last year and beginning of this year.

Here's one of the most popular videos, in case you haven't seen it:

I don't want to sound too critical of what this woman has produced.  In fact, I really like her series of videos. (Plus, she makes homemade musical instruments. How cool is that?)

But, here's what you might not know about Vi Hart: her father is George Hart, a former professor at Stony Brook University, a sculptor, and the first director of the soon-to-open Museum of Mathematics.

What that means to me is that Vi grew up in an environment where curiosity about mathematics was nurtured and developed. It also indicates to me that she has been working for a long time to develop her talents. Those last two points are not criticisms, they are merely observations. 

I do take issue with her underlying commentary on the state of math education (and really, school in general) which is that classes are boring and taught by incompetent teachers, and that students would get more out of class by not paying attention and just playing some doodle games. I'm not even sure I disagree with her (completely) on those points, either. What I disagree with is the notion that anyone learns anything from watching her videos. She talks too fast for most people to be able to maintain comprehension all the way through the video and there are many terms which are unfamiliar to non-mathematicians which fly by as the video is playing.

I wanted to better understand what the doodle games were all about, so the first thing I did was I tried creating some doodles on my own.  (If her only goal in these videos is to get people to try out the doodles, then maybe they are working better than I give her credit for.) I was able to follow the first two doodle games in the above video, but I wasn't able to get the shading right on the third doodle game. More frustrating to me was that I couldn't really understand the importance of the doodles. In the video she mentioned knot theory and weaving but I could never quite catch what it was she was actually saying about all of that.

I went looking for a transcript of the video, but I couldn't find one. So, I sat down at my computer and banged out a transcript myself. I learned a few things by doing that. One, I learned that one of the figures she mentioned in the video is called a Ouroboros. I had no idea what she was talking about when I had watched the video, but by piecing together the transcript I was able to get the correct spelling and look it up online.

After I had the transcript complete, I started looking into all the topics she mentioned in the video. My digging eventually turned into this post at metafilter which was well received by the community over there. In finding the links which went into the post, I was able to dig a little into topics like knot theory and topology which I had previously known next to nothing about. I definitely appreciate that the video brought these ideas to my attention so that I would be inspired to learn more about them.

The thing is, though, it took a lot of my time to read up on those topics. I was constructing the metafilter post for over 2 weeks, working an hour or two every night in my free time. I learned a lot because I put in the effort to do so. I'm willing to bet that Vi Hart has put in thousands of hours of study to cultivate her passion and talent for math. It seems a little disingenuous to me, then, that she puts together videos with the attitude of "classes are boring" and "students don't need to pay attention". For a lot of students, classes are their only chance to engage with topics such as math or science. Most people aren't fortunate enough to have a parent who is a professional scientist or mathematician. It might not appeal to adults who feel they suffered through boring classes in their school years, but how many more kids could she encourage to engage more in their classes if her videos said something like: "Hey, ask your teacher in class about this. If you show interest in it, your teachers will likely respond to that interest!"

But, more importantly, it would be great to remind students that learning takes work. You don't become an expert on graph theory just because you've watched a four minute video on doodles. This is something I know, but I have to constantly remind myself of anyway. If I really wanted to make the third doodle game work, I could do it, but I would have to put in the effort and time to be able to do it. Vi Hart's videos not only miss the opportunity to encourage students to think that way, they might be inadvertently sending students the exact opposite message.

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