A pedagogic moment at a conference

Recently, I was at a Math conference for graduate students. I think I’ve taken away some new Math from it, but I was reminded of a very important learning/teaching lesson during a talk. It’s an easy lesson to forget, which is why I’m writing it here as a reminder to myself and others.

The venue had these funny “scrollable” chalkboards for the talks. They were pieces of fabric with bars every couple feet for the speaker to pull/push the fabric up and down; similar to sliding chalkboards but made of fabric and on a conveyer belt. Also, there was a rectangular hole underneath the portion of the wall exposing the fabric/board; If you needed to push/pull one of the bars, but it was out of reach, the next bar was likely reachable through this hole. This feature will be important.

One of the first talks was given by a well-known mathematician. As her talk progressed she had trouble reaching the bar to move to the next pane. This happened a few times; she would try to push the bar further up but to no avail. Eventually, an audience member mentioned that she can use the hole to move the boards. She thanked the audience member and promptly tried squeezing her hand into the small crevice between the fabric and the wall underneath (not through the hole that was clearly visible from our seats). Later in the day, she was in the audience and watched another speaker use the hole under the boards to reach the next bar. Realizing that this was the hole the audience had tried to tell her about she silently shook her head and had a quiet chuckle.

So, what’s the point?

No matter how intelligent you are, it’s easy to miss a “clear” solution. From the other side, even though a solution may seem clear from your perspective it need not look the same from every angle.

As a student, don’t get annoyed at yourself for not seeing something you now think is obvious.

As an instructor, don’t get annoyed at students for not seeing something that you think is obvious.