Minac's innovative teaching style in Mathematics gains national recognition
by Mitchell Zimmer
Ján Mináč’s innovative storytelling style of teaching mathematics has already received accolades from within Western. He says his style was inspired by his upbringing. “I came from a family who were all in the film industry. My brother is a filmmaker, my mother was a photographer for film, my father was a writer for film and television, and my uncle was a writer. I like stories, and therefore artistic presentations of mathematics came to me naturally.” When he can, Mináč incorporates these stories into theatrical presentations in his classes. Now, the Canadian Mathematical Society has taken notice, Mináč is the recipient of the 2013 CMS Excellence in Teaching Award.
“When I am teaching I want to stress the human side of the story,” says Mináč. “I teach the facts but also how the mathematics evolved, how it affects life, and why it is beautiful and often amazing. The students become extremely interested so it is a fantastic thing … You want to teach them the material so they know things very well and they master them, but one of the very important things before they can do this, is that they can become enthusiastic, curious, puzzled and eager to get deeply into the subject.”
Mathematicians think about mathematical objects, which can sometimes get very abstract, and while thinking about these concepts continuously, these objects take on a life of their own. Mináč says that “[these objects] become as familiar to mathematicians as their children, wives, and husbands. They worry about them and they share joy with them. This is very difficult to express to students, because students often are asked to accept definitions which evolved after the long reflections of a number of mathematicians and they are asked to use them immediately. How to get students more familiar with these abstract objects? One of the ways of doing this is to create this mathematical theater because then these things indeed become human.” The students can then identify with these mathematical concepts and can think of them as something they know very well from daily life. This is the type of innovative teaching that engages the students, so much so that they become very passionate about mathematics. “If you want to learn well” says Mináč, “you have to be happy.” Making sure that students are happy leads to enthusiasm, curiosity, passion, and exploration.
Mináč makes sure to interact with students beyond classes. He meets with students ranging from first-year undergraduates to doctoral students. “We interact for a long time and then even when they go away. It’s a lifelong dedication. It is gratifying. Many students send me letters and e.mails, and they keep in touch. Then I realize that I did affect the lives of students. It is fantastic.”
Mináč also takes the time to find out individual student strengths and recognizes that some “weaknesses” may require a different way of learning and tries to adapt his classes so that no one is left behind. “If there is some difficult topic you may want to divide into small pieces, you conquer these pieces one by one and then suddenly like a magician you lift the veil and reveal the sometimes astonishing “big picture” which ties all of these small pieces together.”
“Playfulness is extremely important as a way of reducing math anxiety,” says Mináč. “You’ve got to take away the fear because the fear is, psychologically, an incredibly difficult thing, especially for mathematics. People often doubt themselves.” Students then can become engaged in the world of numbers, geometry and algebra, because it is fun and they begin to explore on their own. The confidence students acquire goes beyond assignments and tests and contributes to their personal development. It is at this point Mináč says that they can identify their abilities. “They are often surprised by what they can do, and so am I. Student potential is huge, and what a joy and privilege it is to uncover it.”
“Another crucial source of support I have is my wife. She is absolutely incredible. She is so gifted, loving, and happy. She participates in my mathematical theatrical lectures, has sung for my students, and has played games with them. If I were born again, I would have to have the same wife again!”
Ján Mináč will receive the CMS 2013 Excellence in Teaching Award at the CMS Summer Meeting, June 4 – 7 in Halifax, sponsored by Dalhousie University and Saint Mary’s University. Mináč is the tenth recipient of this award chosen from many brilliant Canadian postsecondary teachers since 2004. He is humble about this award. “It is the students, the colleagues, the mathematics, and my wife, Leslie.”
The title of Mináč’s award lecture will be: “How being chased by Ralph, Rex, and the nurses, did not prevent me from becoming a teacher of mathematics.” This promises to be yet another fun and thought-provoking lecture.