Award-winning mathematics teacher Eddie Woo was in high spirits for his talk with a group of Malaysian students at Petrosains, Kuala Lumpur recently.
“An enthusiastic teacher gets students excited and be more engaged,” says the energetic Australian, smiling widely.
Woo is best known for his YouTube channel, "Wootube" where over half a million subscribers tune in to him explaining complex mathematics in a simple and engaging way.
He has won a string of awards for his innovative teaching methods (‘I take a storytelling approach to mathematics’), and was named Australia's Local Hero for 2018, propelling the Sydney lad as an unlikely celebrity in his country.
“I don’t teach a subject, I teach students,” Woo says. “It really matters that you can’t just be an expert in mathematics. You also have to be an expert in children.”
Abundant Connections Between Mathematics and the Real World
When asked of his ability to draw students to learn mathematics, considered by many to be difficult and possibly, the most-hated subject, Woo says it is imperative to make mathematics ‘relatable’.
“What are you interested in? I always asks students, and no matter what answers they give - be it sports, finance, cooking or science - I can find a connection to mathematics. Suddenly, they realise mathematics is connected to them.”
Human beings are natural storytellers
“It it is my job to be able to find out what that is, cultivate that relationship, learn what they are passionate about and connect it to mathematics,” says Woo.
The next step is clarity and simplicity. ‘If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough’, a quote made famous by Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman, the American theoretical physicist Woo looks up to.
“Human beings are natural storytellers. Sometimes, we don’t take a story approach to mathematics, much to our own detriment. People don’t realise it’s a great way to engage people to learn the subject.”
Injecting Imagination and Storytelling into Mathematics
Up till 2012, Woo was a relatively unknown teacher at Cherrybrook Technology High School. That year, he decided to film his lessons in the classroom for a student diagnosed with cancer.
“He was missing a lot of school, weeks at a time. If you miss an idea, skill or concept, it is very difficult for the subsequent things you learn to make sense. So, that’s why I started taking these videos so that he can keep up.”
Woo’s popularity grew exponentially online, and soon he was traveling the country, and then abroad, mentoring students and teachers. The father-of-three describes the opportunity to teach maths globally as surreal but says he feels most at home in the classroom with his students.
It takes a conscious, deliberate effort just to be innovative in the way that I teach
“I am always someone who is most at home in the classroom, having the relationship and rapport with students and helping them learn. But I want to take the opportunity that I have to spread that learning all around the world.”
“Teaching is a tough gig. People in school really need the support to help them see new ways of teaching,” says the teacher of eleven years.
The storytelling method, while innovative and engaging, is time consuming, admits Woo.
“It takes a lot of broad reading. I need to know not just about mathematics, I actually have to study economics, history, science and all these other area of knowledge so that I know where the connections to mathematics are.”
And as the famous saying goes, 'teachers teach the way they were taught’, highlighting the struggles teachers, even Woo, in changing their teaching styles to better meet the needs and interests of students.
“It takes a conscious, deliberate effort just to be innovative in the way that I teach. That’s one off the reason why it is uncommon,” says Woo.
Mathematics is 'Beautiful'
Woo is on a mission, one student and teacher at a time, to turn around the entrenched stereotype that mathematics is just about ‘numbers, formulas and calculations.’
“It is tough,” says Woo. “There is a universe of mathematics that many people do not know exists. So, it is difficult to break that stereotype.”
Woo strongly believes that an affinity for the subject can be cultivated (‘I was not naturally good in Mathematics), like any subject and discipline. “Even gifted musicians are not able to use that talent without huge amounts of self discipline and effort.”