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Spotlight on Thanom Shaw

Teaching Fellow (2014)

Thanom Shaw was our 2014 Visiting Teaching Fellow. Thanom has been a high school teacher at SCEGGS for nine years, and says that spending 2014 immersed in studying and teaching university level Mathematics at UNSW was a "dream come true for me and a professional development opportunity not so easy to come by".

Interview conducted by School Communications Officer, Susannah Waters


What is your favourite aspect of teaching mathematics to high school students?

I like seeing students constantly building their understanding of numbers and mathematics, gaining an appreciation for the elegance as well as the usefulness of this subject, year by year uncovering more of the big picture and putting all the pieces together. Actually … that's pretty much what I like about mathematics, period. So perhaps it's just that I like spreading the love for this great subject.

What appealed to you most about applying for the Teaching Fellow role at UNSW?

The idea of immersing myself in mathematics for a year - which to many probably doesn't sound all that appealing! It has been a long time since I have done mathematics at this level and it was certainly time for a refresher. Spending the year in the Teaching Fellow role at UNSW was a professional development opportunity not to be missed and everything about it is certainly living up to my expectations - the mathematics, the students, the staff. I'm soaking it all in.

What do you see as the biggest difference between a high school and a university teaching and learning environment?

The responsibility the student has to take for their own learning. Definitely. No doubt about it. At high school, encouraging students to want to learn and to take responsibility for their own learning is the goal. Young students don't always know what they want yet, and they don't always know what's best for them (which is mathematics of course!). There is a responsibility to get the students on board and to get the best out them, whether they like it or not. It is assumed, correctly or not so, that university students want to learn and are old enough to be the drivers of their own education - so it's all up to them!

If you had to teach someone how to be a maths teacher, what would the first lesson be about?

Never assume anything is obvious or trivial or clear! I still think it's kind of crazy that 2*3=3*2; why should two 3s (3+3) be the same as three 2s (2+2+2)? But also, it's important not to crush students' intuition about numbers. It is wrong to turn everything so quickly into abstract rules so that students forget we are actually dealing with numbers.Thanom Shaw

In your opinion, what are some of the most important ideas university and high school students should know about mathematics?

Pictures paint a thousand words. Lots of mathematics can be visualised and it's crazy to fumble around with numbers and symbols without a picture in your mind of what's happening.

Also, there are always lots of ways to approach a problem and this is when things get interesting and when you can learn just how everything really interconnects. Don't always put every different type of problem in its own little box; sometimes the boxes get big and messy - it's just the way it is. Embrace it.

Is your current role at UNSW giving you flashbacks about your own experiences as a university student?

Well the glazed look in the students' eyes is not unfamiliar and nor is that feeling of your brain just not being able to fit anything more in. Zip. Zilch. Particularly in Week 11!

How did you first get interested in mathematics, and when was that?

I went to my first maths camp on April 12, 1998. That's the day I first met other people who actually, properly, fair dinkum liked mathematics. I think it became clear to me then that I too actually, properly, fair dinkum liked mathematics. But like lots of things, I suspect, mathematics was something I certainly just did for a very long time simply because I was good at it and that's what you did. One day it just dawned on me that actually, I really quite like this mathematics business!

If you could step into the shoes of any mathematician from any time who would it be?

I don't know about a particular mathematician. But if there was an era it would definitely be way back when, when you could do every known branch of mathematics and be good at it all! These days there are just so, so many narrow fields of study and mathematicians have to decide and specialise so young. I'd much rather have been able to do anything and everything.

What do you think the weirdest or funniest stereotype about mathematicians is?

No idea. But I do think it's funny that so often I think, 'yep, it might be a stereotype but it's so true'. I was thinking that the other day when I saw my dad donning his socks and sandals.

May 2014